CLEVELAND — It didn’t happen.
It almost did.
That’s what will be remembered forever by Notre Dame fans about Saturday’s 68-66 near-miss against Kentucky in the Midwest Region final. The Irish came so close. They came a whisker from making the unexpected happen. No, make that the unthinkable.
Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison made two free throws with 6.1 seconds left to break a 66-66 tie. Irish senior Jerian Grant got off a potential winning three-point shot from the left corner, but it was hotly contested by Willie Cauley-Stein, the ball sailed long, the horn sounded and Irish hearts everywhere were broken.
“It hurts,” said Grant, eyes wet as he slumped on a stool in the locker room. “I really felt like we had the game.”
It began to feel that way when Steve Vasturia nailed a three-pointer to give the Irish a six-point lead with 6:14 to go, but that’s when the Wildcats’ collective clutch gene kicked in, as it has every time they’ve needed it to during this sensational 38-0 campaign.
In the end, there was too much Karl-Anthony Towns; the 6-11 freshman was unstoppable in close, scoring 25 points, shooting 10-for-13 from the floor and no doubt causing droves of people to question if Duke’s Jahlil Okafor should be the first player taken in the upcoming NBA draft.
There even was a familiar late, longer-than-long three-pointer by Aaron Harrison, Kentucky’s hero of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
“This is a terrific basketball team that has a great will to win,” UK coach John Calipari said.
He was referring to his own squad, but he might as well have been speaking about the Irish.
For two days heading into this game, every question seemed to boil down to one very basic concept: Does Notre Dame — small, superstar-less, relatively tradition-poor — really have any business being on the court in late March with unbeaten, skyscraping, blue-chip-laden Kentucky?
The answer turned out to be yes. A resounding yes. And despite the pain Mike Brey, his players and all Irish fans are feeling, it will be a memorable yes.
The game was a straight-up dogfight throughout despite Kentucky’s enormous size advantage and a point spread — 11½ — that was nearly as big. The Irish (32-6) played far above their size, staying even on the boards and scoring often at the rim.
But it’s the Wildcats who get to move on to Indianapolis for the Final Four, where they’ll face Wisconsin in a semifinal rematch most of America will savor.
Perhaps the Badgers will be the team that ends Kentucky’s march toward 40-and-incredible, but Notre Dame was good enough to be the one. There were many moments of Irish resilience that declared as much with emphasis.
One of those moments came right off the bat, when the Wildcats took their opening possession for an immediate alley-oop score, Towns finding Trey Lyles soaring over Vasturia. But Vasturia didn’t hang his head. On UK’s next possession, he stymied Lyles at the baseline, forcing a shot-clock violation.The Irish got to the first media timeout with a 4-3 lead and seemed to exhale. The rest of the half was nip-and-tuck, ending in a 31-31 tie.
Another such moment came early in the second half. After a pair of post-ups by Towns surrounding a three-pointer by Devin Booker, UK led 38-33 and the overwhelmingly pro-Wildcats crowd rose in a frenzy. But there was no fear in the experienced Irish. They ripped off a 13-4 run that included some of all the good things they do — a backdoor bucket by Zach Auguste (20 points), a three-pointer by Vasturia, an uncontested dunk by Pat Connaughton off a sweet curl.
Even Aaron Harrison’s long three was answered right away with a nearly identical one by Grant.
“We emptied the tank tonight,” said Brey, “and that’s all I asked them to do.”
They just couldn’t quite close. Overtime would’ve been nice. Some would say it merely would’ve delayed the inevitable. But such a thought would be selling these Irish short, one hell of a mistake.