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Men’s Basketball: Big Apple Bound

Fran Tolan | Thursday, March 26, 2009

For the four Notre Dame seniors who led the Irish to a 52-3 record at home the past three seasons, the final game at the old Joyce Center could not have been any better.

The hosts never trailed and held off a late Kentucky rally to beat the Wildcats 77-67 on Wednesday night. The Irish advance to the semifinals of the NIT, which will be played in New York City’s Madison Square Garden starting next Tuesday.

“What a way to go out. Kentucky, probably the most storied program in college basketball, and to get a ‘W,'” Irish senior Kyle McAlarney said. “… It’s obviously very special to go out like that and the fans were great, and we can’t thank them enough.”

The Irish improved their all-time record against Kentucky to 18-41.

Notre Dame led by as many as 17 points in the second half but Kentucky fought back to make it 67-62 with 2:41 left. Wildcats junior Jodie Meeks, who scored just three points in the first half, exploded for 18 after intermission to lead the comeback.

“It looked like we were on the verge of putting them away but he is such a potent guy,” Irish coach Mike Brey said of Meeks. “You know, two threes and all of a sudden it’s a game again. And he kept the game pressure on us. We just couldn’t get away.”

But the Irish responded to the Wildcats run as McAlarney and junior Luke Harangody hit 9-of-10 free throw attempts in the final two minutes.

“We were poised offensively, made big free throws,” Brey said. “I think we’re excited to get to New York.”

Harangody led Notre Dame to an early lead it never relinquished as he scored 11 of the team’s first 14 points. He also helped hold Kentucky forward Patrick Patterson to just six first-half points. The hot start propelled Harangody to a final stat line of 30 points and 11 rebounds.

“It was good to get off to a good start for myself, inside and outside,” said Harangody, who hit two 3-pointers in the contest. “Coming into this game, [Patterson] is one of the best post players in the country so just getting in a rhythm like that was key for me.”

The Irish made 7-of-14 3-point attempts in the first half as they built a 34-26 halftime lead. McAlarney and Ryan Ayers combined to go 7-of-16 from behind the arc in the contest.

“Zach [Hillesland] and Ty Nash really screening really freed us up a little bit but I think we were ready [to shoot],” McAlarney said. “We wanted to get some good looks in transition … They were really coming in on [Harangody] tonight so credit him for his kickouts. It’s our job to be ready and take those shots but credit our teammates for getting us open.”

Midway through the second half, the Irish went on a 10-4 run to take a 62-45 lead. But Meeks and the Wildcats battled back, cutting the deficit to single digits. When Meeks hit a 3-pointer to make it 64-55, the thousands of Kentucky fans in attendance rose to their feet. But the Notre Dame fans responded, helping the team stave off the comeback.

“What a great atmosphere in there,” Brey said. “One thing about the Kentucky fan base, man, they travel. And they made our fans compete tonight so it was really a great atmosphere in there.”

A dunk by Ayers in the final minute put an exclamation point on the Irish victory.

“To go out with a win as a senior, playing with these guys that you love to play with every day [is] really special, and we’re just thankful for everyone coming out and being a part of our four years here,” Ayers said.

After closing the Joyce Center with a win, the Irish now look ahead to a semifinal matchup against Penn State Tuesday. The NIT final will be played Thursday.

“We’re extremely excited and we’re looking to cut down the nets there in the Garden, so it’s not over yet,” McAlarney said.