Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Kentucky 68 - 66 Notre Dame (Cleveland) (NCAA Tourn.) (No. 2,178)

Sometimes you will hear people say that Kentucky only hangs a banner when the school wins the National Championship.  This is not true.  There are currently 16 banners hanging in Rupp -- one for each time the Wildcats have been to the Final Four.  (I've counted them a bunch of times this year during the commercial breaks on TV.)  And this seems right to me.  I have really loved certain teams that failed in the Elite Eight -- the 1992 Unforgettables and the 2003 team (winners of 26 games in a row) come to mind.  But I have to admit that I always feel differently toward those teams that reach the Final Four.  This is the biggest week of the year in College Basketball, and it's always an amazing feeling to be a part of it -- a whole week with nothing but anticipation, like Christmas.

So in my mind -- and I'm not saying this is fair -- there is a big dividing line between the teams that reach the Final Four and the teams that lose in the Elite Eight.  In my head, I keep the teams from 2010, 1983, and 1977 on one side of that line, while the teams from 2011, 1984, and 1975 are on the other side.

It is fitting, I suppose, that given the stakes Kentucky has often faced very difficult opponents in the Elite Eight, and that many of these game have taken place against Midwestern teams somewhere in the Midwest.  To me, Kentucky is a Southern school, and I always want us to play in locations like Atlanta or Nashville.  But for many years, the NCAA paired up the SEC Champion and the Big 10 Champion in the same region, and I have lots of memories of the Cats going north for a showdown with a Midwestern team.  Some of these have gone well:

3/22/1975:  Kentucky 92, Indiana 90 (Dayton, Ohio)
3/18/1978:  Kentucky 52, Michigan St. 49 (Dayton, Ohio)
3/30/2014:  Kentucky 75, Michigan 72 (Indianapolis, Ind.)

Some haven't gone so well:

3/21/1999:  Michigan St. 73, Kentucky 66 (St. Louis)
3/29/2003:  Marquette 83, Kentucky 69 (Minneapolis, Minn.)

Of course, this year's game was complicated for fans of my generation by UK's ancient rivalry with Notre Dame.  The Cats and the Irish don't play as often as they used to, but I can remember when we used to play every year around New Year's Eve in Louisville.  These were huge games, especially in the days before ESPN.  There was a series of five seasons -- from 1976-77 to 1980-81 -- where Kentucky played Notre Dame on national television, and in none of those five games was either team ever ranked lower than 13.  Notre Dame was riding high back then, with Digger Phelps in his prime and more televised games (at least in memory) than almost any other team to help his recruiting.  But most years, Kentucky would knock him off -- Joe Hall went 9-2 against Digger in his career -- and we won the 1978 Title in the only year Digger reached the Final Four.  These wins were extremely important.  Back then, most UK fans thought about Notre Dame the way they now think about Duke.  (I can remember rooting for Duke to beat Notre Dame in the 1978 Final Four, and I bet almost everyone else in Kentucky did, too.)

But time passed, other teams got on television, more players picked the Big East over the Irish, Digger retired, and history moved on.  Notre Dame still shows up on the schedule from time to time -- the Irish were the last team to beat Billy Gillespie when they eliminated UK from the 2009 NIT, thus freeing the Cats to hire John Calipari, and they beat us in an early game from the 2012-13 season.  For the most part, however, they remained in the cupboard of old rivalries that weren't quite as fierce as they used to be.

Now, however, they had suddenly returned.  After years of fielding nice, pleasant teams that got bounced fairly early in the Tournament, the Irish were in the Elite Eight for the first time since Magic Johnson and the Michigan State Spartans crushed Kelly Tripucka and company back in 1979.  The Irish were on a roll.  On March 4, they went to Louisville and beat the Cardinals 71-59.  On March 13 and 14, they beat Duke (74-64) and North Carolina (90-82) on back-to-back days in Greensboro to win the ACC Tournament.  And on March 26, they cruised past a solid Wichita State team (81-70), making 60 percent of their two-point shots and over 47 percent of their three-point shots.  They were 32-5, they had the second-most efficient offense in the country, and they were extremely dangerous.

And so we all waited through a very exciting Wisconsin/Arizona game, and finally -- at almost 8 o'clock Central time, we were in Cleveland for the showdown.  Ashley Judd was there.  LeBron was there.  Lots of Kentucky fans were there -- along with a good crowd for the Irish.  The setting was ripe for a classic.  And that's what we got.

First Quarter:  Notre Dame 15, Kentucky 14

In all the other times I had seen Notre Dame, they had been pretty aggressive on offense and not so great on defense.  So I was expecting a pretty high-scoring game.  But Mike Brey, the long-time Irish coach, had a brilliant idea.  Because the Irish offense was so efficient, they could afford to go deep into the shot clock and still get good looks at the goal.  And by holding the ball for long periods, they could avoid getting into the sort of track meet that would allow UK's depth to make a difference.  At the same time, of course, Notre Dame would take advantage of any transition opportunities UK gave them.

On the other side, Coach Calipari had made the decision that he would NOT give Notre Dame the chance to end UK's season with a barrage of three-pointers.  (Just minutes before, Wisconsin had gone 10-12 (!) from behind the arc in the second half to beat a great Arizona defense, so you could see Calipari's thinking.)  But this meant that the Cats were spread out all over the court, thus leaving themselves open to the type of backdoor cuts and layups that we had seen when UK played at Georgia.

Meanwhile, the Cats looked a bit shaky.  Aaron Harrison, still apparently struggling with the injury to his left hand suffered against West Virginia, missed an early three-pointer.  The Cats were trying to go inside to Karl-Anthony Towns and Trey Lyles, but Lyles in particular was struggling with the quick Irish defense.  Ten minutes into the game, I had turned off the Kentucky radio broadcast and hunkered in for a long evening.

Second Quarter:  Kentucky 17, Notre Dame 16 (Game tied 31-all at the half)

Kentucky's offense continued to struggle for most of this period, and the Cats trailed 26-22 with only 2:22 left in the half.  Down the stretch, however, UK finally put together a mini-run.  Lyles got an old-fashioned three-point play to make the score 26-25, and soon thereafter two free throws from Andrew Harrison put UK on top, 27-26.  Everything was a bit patchwork at this point, as Towns and Zach Auguste (Notre Dame's lone big guy) were both on the bench with two fouls.  But Jerian Grant, Notre Dame's star senior guard, drew a foul from Lyles and made both FT's to put ND back into the lead, 28-27.  A dunk from Willie Cauley-Stein put UK back in front with less than a minute to go, and it looked like UK would maintain the lead after Notre Dame missed and Lyles gathered the rebound with only 27 seconds left.  But Lyles (who made five turnovers in this game) lost the ball almost immediately, and Notre Dame got a three-point play to take a 31-29 lead.  However, Lyles partially made up for his mistake by tipping in Andrew Harrison's missed jumper at the buzzer to tie the score at 31, and leave me in a much better frame of mind.

Still, it was obvious to me that the Cats were in trouble.  No matter how good you are defensively, in the NCAA Tournament you will usually run into a hot team that is very difficult to stop.  Remember 2012, when the Cats had to beat Indiana 102-90.  But in the first half of this game, UK made only 10-27 shots -- even Towns was 2 for 5.  And we were only 1-3 from behind the three-point line.  How could we win with that type of shooting?

Third Quarter:  Notre Dame 19, Kentucky 15 (ND led 50-46 with 10 minutes left)

Kentucky came out and immediately gave the ball to Towns, who scored a layup.  Zach Auguste responded with a dunk for ND.  But then Booker hit a three-pointer and Towns made another layup, and suddenly UK was up 38-33.  For a brief moment, I allowed myself to think this might not be so bad after all -- and maybe the Cats did, too, because suddenly Notre Dame was all over them.  In less than four minutes of game time, the Irish put together a 13-4 blitz that looked like something out of a highlight reel -- it included two layups, two dunks, and a three-pointer.

Down 46-42, with 14:25 left in the game, Calipari called time.  Kentucky started doing something different -- I don't really understand these things all that well -- and the Irish run was stalled.  But the Irish were in the flow now -- they would hold the ball for 20, 25, 30 seconds at a time -- and almost always end up with a good shot.  The Cats were showing better focus on offense, but they were starting to run out of time.

Fourth Quarter:  Kentucky 22, Notre Dame 16 (UK wins 68-66)

For several agonizing minutes, the teams went back and forth.  Towns was on a roll -- Notre Dame decided to guard him one-on-one, the same strategy the Irish had employed against Jahlil Okafor when Notre Dame beat Duke in the ACC Tournament.  Okafor had gone for 28 points, but the Blue Devils made only 3 of 17 three-pointers, and the Irish had won.  Now Brey was trying the same strategy, and Towns was feasting on the smaller Irish defenders.  He would go 8-8 from the field in the second half, and finish the game with 25 points and five rebounds in only 25 minutes of playing time.  But at the other end, Kentucky couldn't stop the Irish, who kept getting one layup after another deep in the shot clock.

Finally, with Notre Dame up 56-53, the Irish got the break they had been looking for:  Lyles ended up with the ball instead of Towns -- and Lyles turned it over.  Suddenly the Irish were flying down the floor, and you knew that guard Steve Vasturia would finally have the chance to shoot an uncontested three-pointer, and you knew he would make it, and he did, and now the score was 59-53, and there were only 6 minutes and 10 seconds left.  It was a perfect, devastating play -- an ideal symbol of how well the Irish had executed throughout the game.

Timeout, Kentucky.

And now, you could sense the excitement -- not only in Cleveland, but all over the sports world.  Most of the time, college basketball fans are a small and provincial group that fights with each other while everyone else watches football.  But in March, the casual fan starts to pay attention -- especially when an undefeated season is on the line.  So you could imagine the folks at Applebee's and TGIFriday's crowding around the televisions to see if Notre Dame could pull off the upset, and you could imagine the golfers in California coming off the course and calling their buddies as soon as they heard the score.  And you could sense the usual band of UK haters being joined by millions more all across the country who wanted to see what would happen.  (This game ended up with the highest television rating for any college basketball game ever shown on cable television, which was no surprise to me.)  And it all seems so unfair, because we've been watching since November, and no one loves the game like we do, and these really are great kids, and so forth and so on.  But remember, Kentucky fans, how the nation was pulling for us to beat Duke in 1992, and what it meant to us when we ended Indiana's undefeated season in 1975.  The NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event in the world, and you have to take the bad with the good.

Meanwhile, the game had re-started, and suddenly Tyler Ulis, a freshman who stands 5 feet, 9 inches tall, had the ball in the corner, and you could barely see him in the midst of so many taller players, and the UK coaches were yelling for him to shoot.  Ulis made a brave effort in this game, but Notre Dame's quick, tall, veteran guards were a tough match-up for him, and were never going to give him the chance to shine that he's had in other games.  Still, he had the ball, and he was open, and so he took his only three-pointer of the game.

And made it.  Suddenly UK was right back in the game:  59-56.  I thought at the time, and I think still, that this may have been the most important shot of the season.

Notre Dame responded by holding the ball for exactly 33 seconds before Zach Auguste scored on another layup to put the Irish up 61-56.  Auguste finished with 20 points in this game, and at this point he looked like a sure bet for game MVP.

But now the Harrisons were ready to start taking the game into their own hands.  For most of the day, they had been trying to keep Notre Dame from raining three's on UK's chances, and their own offensive output had been minimal.  Now Aaron Harrison saw an opening in the defense, and went soaring down the lane for a dunk to make the score 61-58 with 5:04 left.

The Irish held the ball for 26 seconds, drew a foul, then held it for 10 more seconds, and Ulis fouled Jerian Grant, who made 78 percent of his free throws this year.  He made 6-7 in this game, but his miss came right now, and the Irish led 62-58 after he made one of two FT's.

It took UK 20 seconds to get the ball back to Towns, and he not only scored but drew Auguste's fourth foul.  His free throw made the score 62-61, and the huge crowd was now on its feet, desperate to see what would happen next.  After 23 seconds Trey Lyles fouled Pat Connaughton, and we got the last media timeout with 3:45 left in the game.

After a bunch of commercials that we've all seen a million times by now -- what sort of person doesn't know what a Buick looks like? -- Connaughton went to the line.  He's a 78.1 percent free throw shooter, but he made only one of two, and the score was 63-61.  Now the Cats could tie -- or, as they say, take the lead.

I expected UK to go back to Towns -- as did everyone, I suppose.  But with only 5 seconds left on the shot clock, Aaron Harrison had the ball about 27 feet from the basket.  He launched a long three-pointer -- which seemed to stay in the air forever, but which was good all the way.  UK was up 64-63, and all over the Commonwealth, folks danced around their living rooms.

Surely now we were OK.  Surely we wouldn't lose after such as magnificent run to take the lead.  And sure enough UK's defense looked great -- Notre Dame passed and passed, but didn't seem to make much progress.  With seconds left on the shot clock, however, Grant took a long three-pointer -- which also went in.  Notre Dame was back on top:  66-64.  2:35 left.

Timeout, Kentucky.

Towns had picked up his fourth foul with 5:21 left in the game, so Calipari was taking him out when the Cats were on defense.  He was back in now, and we were all waiting for him to get the ball, when Andrew Harrison passed up a shot from the corner to drive the baseline -- and stepped out of bounds.  Now the Irish had the ball and the lead.  1:59 left.

Timeout, Notre Dame.

After the game, there were complaints that Notre Dame got away from its offense at the end of play -- that Grant went into hero mode, and the Irish stopped all the pretty cuts and passes that had worked so well for them.  I don't know enough to understand if any of that is true, or if UK's defense improved.  But I do know I was terrified when Grant fired up a 3-pointer with 1:25 left that could have really hurt Kentucky -- only to see it bounce off the rim.  Aaron Harrison gathered the rebound and was off to the races -- but an Irish foul stopped any chance of a fast break.

So Towns came back into the game, and UK got him the ball, and he scored again.  (Again, if you double-team Towns, you are opening yourself up to a potentially deadly three-pointer.)  66-66 with 1:12 left.

After the game, there was a lot of talk about how Notre Dame should have gone "two for one" at this point.  In other words, the Irish should have made sure to take their shot with about 50 seconds left in the game.  That way, UK could not take the last shot, and Notre Dame would get two possessions in the last 1:12 to only one for Kentucky.  This strategy is common in the NBA, but is rarely used in college, for reasons that no one seems to understand.  It will be interesting to see if the publicity surrounding this particular game causes college coaches to think differently going forward.  Of course, for all I know Notre Dame may have wanted to shoot more quickly, but couldn't get the shot it wanted.

In any event, the Irish were running out of time when Grant tried another step-back three-pointer over Willie Cauley-Stein.  WCS said after the game that Grant's step-back shot was one of the best he had ever seen, and that he had found it almost impossible to defend.  But now, in this ultimate moment, Cauley-Stein timed his leap perfectly, just grazing the ball enough so that it fell short of its target, and  was quickly knocked out of bounds in a mad scramble for the rebound.

Lots of back and forth at this point.  Had the shot clock expired?  Who had knocked the ball out of bounds?  Eventually, the officials decided that it was Notre Dame's ball with 1 second left on the shot clock and 34 seconds left on the game clock.  At this point, Brey called his last timeout.  He would later be criticized for this decision, too, and I think it's odd that Brey came in for so much fire given how well his strategy had worked and how well his team played.  At the time, I was terrified that Notre Dame -- which had scored so many points late in the shot clock -- would figure out a way to score in their 1 second.  But they could not, and now UK had the ball.  66-all.  33 seconds to go.

Today, on Slate.com, Ken Pomeroy has an article about how the Irish should have fouled UK at this point.  He did a study of this very question some time ago, and the data indicate that you're better off putting the other team on the line.  Even if they make both FT's, you will have plenty of time to tie the game.  And if they miss one or two, you can win the game without going to overtime.  It's hard to imagine any coach actually doing this, because really who wants to deal with all the criticism if things don't work out?

In any event, Notre Dame did not follow Pomeroy's advice, and settled in to play defense.  On the UK side, Calipari decided not to call time, because (as he said later) he didn't want to give Brey the chance to set anything up.  So the Cats waited and waited and waited -- and then, with six seconds to go, Andrew Harrison spotted a seam in the Irish defense, and he went blazing toward the basket.  His path to the basket was quickly blocked by an Irish player named Demetrius Jackson, who crashed into Andrew.  That's against the rules in college basketball, so Andrew got two free throws.  He's a 79 percent free throw shooter who made 7-8 from the line in this game, and he made both of these.  UK 68, ND 66.  Six seconds left.  No time outs.

Well, you knew it was going to be Jerian Grant, and sure enough here he came scooting up the floor -- being chased by the enormous specter of Cauley-Stein, who chased him all the way into the corner in front of the Notre Dame bench.  At home I was counting down the time, hoping it would run out before Grant could shoot.  And now Andrew was over there as well, and Lyles was flying at Grant, and the ball came sailing up, up, over Lyles's outstretched arm, and the horn sounded, and the ball was right on line -- but just a bit long, and the game was over, and the Cats were celebrating.  It's the happiest I've seen them all year.

I went a bit nuts in my rec room.  I've been a pretty calm fan for most of this year -- which isn't all that hard when you win 37 games by an average of roughly 21 points per game.  But for months I've been worrying about getting out of regionals -- we were due for bad luck in one of these games, could you really win four Elite Eight games in a row, and it would be such a shame for this team, etc.  Now I whooped and yelled and hollered like a crazy person.  I wanted to shout from the rooftops.  I wanted to burn a couch.  I was, and am, so, so happy that whatever happens -- and who can say what will happen now -- this team will get a banner of its own.

One more point should be made.  All week, the talking heads had raised the question of exactly how UK would react to a late-game pressure situation.  "What if the young Wildcats are in a late-game situation against the veteran Irish . . . .."  Now they had their answer.  In the last 12 minutes of play, UK made all nine of its shots from the field.  In the second half, the Cats went 12-15 from two-point range and 3-5 from three-point range.  It was almost perfect basketball -- and they needed every bit of it to survive.

People write a lot about Kentucky's advantages -- the famous players, the huge fan base, the potential NBA contracts.  And I understand that.  But at the end of the day, these kids -- and they are kids -- have to perform under conditions of pressure that most of us literally cannot imagine.  That's heroic, and that's why teams and games like this deserve to be remembered for years to come.


  1. Hurrah!

    The difference between the Final Four and "elite eight" is huge. For my money, there are regional championships, but there really is no such thing as the "elite eight" (or "sweet 16," only the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen).

  2. So the recruiting messaging points against John Calipari are starting to come together. Jay Wright is floating them on ESPN Radio right now ... Villanova is looking for players who expect to go to college for four years and get a degree; if a player gets so much better so quickly that he can go to the NBA early, that's fine--and he'll have a plan in place to come back and finish his degree. Jay Wright says they might still recruit 5-star players--but they are 5-star players who come from a background where the players are still focused on getting their degrees.

    1. Coach K has decided to go in a different direction.

    2. I meant to say that Coach K agrees with Calipari, not Jay Wright.

    3. The best thing for Calipari is that coach K has gone all in, and so national media can no longer be all over Cslipari.