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Men’s Basketball

Notre Dame holds on against Kentucky, records first ever win at Rupp Arena

| Sunday, December 13, 2020

Notre Dame did not end its streak of 23 consecutive losses against ranked teams Saturday against Kentucky in Rupp Arena. That’s because Kentucky (1-4) is not ranked and doesn’t figure to be after dropping its fourth straight against the Irish (2-2).

Notre Dame opened the game hot. After giving up the first four points of the contest to UK senior forward Olivier Saar — who hung 30 points and 17 boards on Notre Dame when playing for Wake Forest last season — junior forward Nate Laszewski responded with five points of his own to give Notre Dame the lead.

After a 1-2 trip at the foul line for Kentucky made it a 5-5 game, it was all Notre Dame for the rest of the first half. After establishing a 9-7 lead, the Irish went on a 24-2 run to go up 33-9. At one point they were 12-17 from the field and 5-7 from three.

Everything was flowing for Notre Dame on the offensive end. All five starters scored, seven of the eight Irish players to see action in the first half recorded a bucket and five of those seven recorded a three-point basket.

The Irish inverted their offense and defense. Junior guard Dane Goodwin hit turnaround shots from the post and Nate Laszewski bombed from outside on one end. Then Laszewski and freshman forward Matt Zona took turns playing at the top of the key in a 1-3-1 defense.

Irish head coach Mike Brey said the defensive approach aided them against the Wildcats.

“You know, we stole this — in full disclosure — from Kermit Davis at Ole Miss last year,” Brey said. “We were looking around for something other than our 2-3 zone. And what we liked about it … I was watching one night where they go 1-3-1 and then when the ball goes to the corner, it eventually becomes a 2-3 zone, our 2-3. But it makes guards play over the top of a big guy. Nate Laszewski is just fabulous, playing up there and being big.”

Rachel Pincus | Notre Dame Athletics
Irish junior guard Prentiss Hubb, left, and junior forward Nate Laszewski double team an Ohio State player during Notre Dame’s 90-85 loss to the Buckeyes on Dec. 8. After allowing 18 second-chance points and 12 on fast breaks against OSU, Notre Dame limited Kentucky to just seven second-chance and four fast break points.

The defense stifled a Kentucky team that has been floundering offensively over its losing streak, whether it be due to poor shooting or turnovers. It took 10 tries for the ‘Cats to make their first three-pointer, and it was the only one they cashed in on during the first half, finishing 1-13. Freshmen wings Terrence Clarke and B.J. Boston led the Wildcats with nine and eight points, respectively, while Saar delivered eight of his own.

Those were the only three Kentucky players to convert from the field in the first half.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, achieved the coveted 50/40/90 shooting slash as a team, and then some. They were 16-27 (59.3%) from the field, 6-11 (54.5%) from deep and 10-11 (90.9%) from the charity stripe. Even with junior guard Prentiss Hubb picking up his second foul with just over 5:30 to go in the opening stanza, the visitors stayed on their lead and took a 48-26 lead into the break.

It now stands as the largest halftime deficit at home in Kentucky basketball history.

“That may have been the most beautiful 20 minutes offensively I’ve ever witnessed,” Brey said of his team’s performance. “And for me to say that, with the offensive lineups that I’ve had through the years, was unbelievable.”

That offensive groove didn’t last though. Both teams struggled offensively to start the second half. For Kentucky, it wasn’t much of a change from the first half. They outscored the Irish 12-5 through the first 8:48 of the second stanza, with both teams entering the under-12 media timeout on 1-8 shooting skids.

After that break, it was all Kentucky as the Wildcats went on a 9-0 run — extending a 14-0 run as part of a 21-5 streak — essentially negating Notre Dame’s first half run and trimming the margin to six points with 8:06 to play in the game.

It was made a four-point game by a Saar jumper, but then Kentucky graduate transfer guard Davion Mintz lost control of the ball on a pump fake, leading to a Hubb fast break layup. It ended a 9:44 scoring drought for the Irish.

That drought would resume for another few minutes, though. The score became 55-51 off another Saar jumper, but Hubb responded once more; he ended an 0-8 start to the half from behind the arc to make it a seven-point game. After that, graduate student Juwan Durham dunked off a feed from junior guard Cormac Ryan to make it 60-51.

Another Saar short corner jumper made it 60-53, but after a Notre Dame turnover he committed an offensive foul on an illegal screen, giving the ball back to the Irish. Hubb proceeded to split the defense and finish with his left to make it a nine-point edge once more.

Then, Kentucky’s pressure got to the Irish.

Thanks to a three-pointer by Boston, 62-53 became 62-56. Then 62-59 on an and-1 by Mintz after Hubb turned it over. Then 62-61 after another turnover on the inbound pass. Hubb converted on yet another bucket, but yet again Kentucky answered. It was a 64-63 Notre Dame edge with less than 50 seconds to go and the Irish with the ball.

Hubb then proceeded to air ball a three on a possession in which not a single pass was thrown. They managed to burn clock at the expense of a shot clock violation, leaving Kentucky with 11.9 seconds.

The Wildcats brought the ball up, and the Irish fouled intentionally with 7.6 left, their final foul before Kentucky would earn the bonus. Kentucky called timeout, and out of it the ball came to Clarke, eventually finding its way to Saar in the short corner.

Whether by divine providence or random chance, it bounced off the rim, and the Irish escaped with the escape of all escapes, winning 64-63.

“Our 1-3-1 was very good to us tonight, and kept them back on their heels and not attacking as much,” he said. “But we felt we had to have bodies on people, and I thought Juwan Durham did a fabulous job getting out to challenge. Saar had hit two shots like that earlier in the half, but he was pushed out more and Juwan really challenged.”

Notre Dame went just 7-25 (28%) from the field and 1-10 from three in the second stanza. Hubb scored nine of the team’s 16 points in the period and nine of their final 11. He powered — or, perhaps more appropriately, dragged — the team to its first win at Rupp Arena in the history of its 63-game rivalry with Kentucky.

Saar led all scorers with 22 while Laszewski and Hubb led the Irish with 21 and 18, respectively. Nineteen of Laszewski’s 21 came in the first half, as did six of his nine rebounds. Hubb recorded five turnovers in the night, but Brey credited him for the way he carried the team and orchestrated the offense.

“The man is a flat-out warrior,” Brey said. “I thought he just quarterbacked that 48 points in the first half, and never really forced anything. And then in the second half, they’re really guarding our other guys, and they’re not as good of receivers. Then it’s like, ‘OK, I guess I better do something.’ He had a couple turnovers, but then when it comes down to it, nobody wants to win more than him. There’s a great Ben Hansbrough kind of edge about this kid that I just love being around, and I think it rubs off on his teammates.”

Rachel Pincus | Notre Dame Athe
Irish junior guard Prentiss Hubb shoots an off-handed floater during Notre Dame’s 64-63 win over Kentucky on Dec. 12. Hubb had 18 points in the win and scored nine of Notre Dame’s final 11 points to stave off a ferocious comeback attempt by Kentucky.

Despite the poor showing in the second half, the Irish are still walking away with a win, avoiding what Brey referred to as his “worst nightmare” of the confidence hit the team might have taken if they blew a 22-point halftime lead and lost. While there are adjustments to be made going forward, he still found positive takeaways from a rough closing half.

“Where we grew is, when we couldn’t get flowing, pretty offensive stuff like we did in the first half, we didn’t hang our heads … I thought this group showed a lot of maturity in just game four,” he said. “I wanted it so bad for them. You know, I’m thinking, as the Saar shot is in the air, I’m thinking like, ‘Come on now, man, this group deserves one.’ So I hope it’s a confidence builder for us. And maybe an identity builder. If we’re not playing pretty offense, which we couldn’t do the last 20 minutes, we still can defend and rebound enough to win a game.”

Notre Dame returns to action Wednesday against No. 10 Duke at 9 p.m. EST on ESPN.

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About Hayden Adams

Hayden is the former sports editor of The Observer. When he's not working toward his four majors (physics and film, television & theatre) and three minors (journalism, ethics & democracy), you can probably find him hopelessly trying to save his beloved Zahm House from being wiped out. He plans to attend law school at a TBD location after graduation.

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