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Men’s Basketball

Monaco: Notre Dame almost completes historic win over Kentucky

| Sunday, March 29, 2015

CLEVELAND — Kentucky strolled onto the court, circled one another and danced. Long, dangling arms sprawled around each other, the Wildcats moved in unison, side to side, as “Zombie Nation” blared.

Notre Dame stood together some 50 feet away, practically motionless, exchanging just a few barely noticeable fist bumps.

From the opening introductions, Notre Dame’s steadiness never wavered against Kentucky’s high-profile ensemble.

“We really didn’t think about it,” Irish All-American guard Jerian Grant said of being underdogs. “Us 13 guys in this locker room didn’t feel like underdogs. We felt confident that we were gonna go out there and get a win.”

They almost did — even though they weren’t supposed to. And in so many ways, Notre Dame’s performance — a 68-66 loss to the Wildcats in the Elite Eight on Saturday — defied explanation and common sense.

The Wildcats were 37-0. They boast nine McDonald’s All-Americans. Their average height in the starting lineup is 6-foot-9. The No. 1 team in the country, Kentucky had won 59 of its last 61 games as the AP’s top-ranked program.

So the Irish needed a perfect game to top Kentucky, right?

“No. Not at all,” Grant said. “We definitely didn’t play a perfect game, and we still put ourselves in position to win. Honestly, we felt we should’ve won, but they made more plays than we did.”

Notre Dame committed three turnovers in its first four possessions.

Notre Dame drilled just one 3-pointer in the first half.

Grant hadn’t attempted a shot in the first eight minutes.

Still, there it was, hanging in the middle of Quicken Loans Arena for anyone to see — 31-31 at halftime, 66-66 in the final seconds — as real yet striking as all the celebrities smattered in the crowd: LeBron James, Kendrick Perkins, Chris Christie, Ashley Judd.

It sure felt like the game was hanging in the balance with every bounce and every whistle. And Notre Dame acted like it.

There was Demetrius Jackson diving on the floor, extending, contorting and belly-flopping for any and every loose ball, even as his shots weren’t falling.

There was top Irish assistant Anthony Solomon forcefully holding up his right hand, quieting fellow assistants Rod Balanis and Martin Inglesby, who flanked him on each side and were screaming at each other, trying to be heard three feet away in a deafening arena in the first half.

There was Mike Brey squatting into an All-ACC defensive stance after a bull-like second-half Jackson drive, pumping both fists, hiking up his pants and spinning around with another fist pump that sent a tiny piece of metal flying off his person — all in one imperfect motion.

Every second mattered. Notre Dame just ran out of them.

The logic-defying game resisted explanation.

Notre Dame out-dunking Kentucky? Of course.

Pat Connaughton practically scraping his highlighter shoes on the backboard after a two-handed dunk? Yup.

A Steve Vasturia 3-pointer from the top of the arc that dropped John Calipari’s arms to his sides and raised Zach Auguste’s right hand to his right ear as he stopped at midcourt to tease Big Blue Nation? Why not?

Notre Dame’s nearly historic performance thrived somewhere in the unquantifiable concoction of leadership, chemistry, confidence and momentum — the very mix that brought a 17-win turnaround and an ACC championship.

“Leadership. Student-athlete leadership,” Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick said before the last syllable of a question about the program’s growth. “It’s so important. And when you get it right, it’s magical. And we had it as right as you can get it this year with Jerian and Pat.

“That’s when you see it. It’s the difference maker.”

It doesn’t fully explain a near takedown of would-be epic proportions. But it helps.

A team that played together — from the moment it was huddled tightly on the NCAA-stained hardwood — also made even more history.

“It’s over. It’s tough,” Grant said. “Being so close to doing something so special and just like that, it’s over and it’s done, you lost — it’s tough.”

Tough to put into words.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Mike Monaco

Senior Sports Writer Mike Monaco is a senior majoring in Film, Television and Theatre with a minor in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy as well as Business Economics. The O’Neill Hall native hails from the Boston area and is an aspiring play-by-play broadcaster.

Contact Mike