Kelly Tripucka haunted by last game at Notre Dame

Even as he’s inducted into ND’s Ring of Honor, the former pro still laments his last college game

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Notre Dame’s Kelly Tripucka and BYU’s Steve Craig chase a loose ball in the first half of the NCAA East Regional semifinal on March 19, 1981, in Atlanta. AP

Associated Press

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Even now, nearly four decades since he played his final game for Notre Dame, the pain is still present for Kelly Tripucka.

Mention the name “Danny Ainge,” and the newest inductee to the school’s Ring of Honor will grimace. It is not an affectation.

That 51-50 loss to Ainge and sixth-seeded BYU in the Sweet 16 of the 1981 NCAA Tournament still stings, and not just because it ended Tripucka’s college career.

“Just the way we lost to BYU,” says Tripucka, who turns 60 on Feb. 16. “We were better than BYU — much better than BYU.”

Seeded second in the East Region, coach Digger Phelps’ Fighting Irish were looking forward to a rematch with top-seeded Virginia and Ralph Sampson. Notre Dame had upset the top-ranked Cavaliers a month earlier at the Rosemont Horizon and believed it could do so again.

The highly anticipated rematch was washed away in the eight seconds it took Ainge to slalom his way up the court and through all five Irish defenders. His game-winning floater over the late Orlando Woolridge, the future Chicago Bull who was playing through a deep thigh bruise, ended the dream of a national championship.

“It still hurts, as you can tell,” said Tripucka, a two-time All-American who finished his college career 92-26, including the only Final Four trip in school history (as a freshman). “Danny and I are fine, but my kids, they call him my mortal enemy.”

Moments before Ainge’s heroics, Tripucka hit the go-ahead corner jumper while falling out of bounds. That gave the 6-6 forward 14 points and seemed to salvage a spot in the regional final after Phelps’ questionable decision to slow the tempo with a double-digit lead in the second half.

“The thing that irks me the most,” Tripucka says with a smile, is that “nobody even knows that.”

Confusion in the huddle, where excitement was running high after Tripucka’s shot, left the Irish unclear on how they should defend the Cougars’ final possession. Were they faking a press? Were they supposed to deny Ainge the inbounds pass?

No one was quite sure, and yet no one felt empowered enough to call another timeout before the ball was put in play.

“You’re kids,” Tripucka said. “The head guy [Phelps] is the one that’s supposed to do it.”

Tripucka went on to play 10 seasons in the NBA, where he had a 17.2 career scoring average and piled up more than 12,000 points for the Pistons, Jazz and Hornets. He and Ainge, now the Boston Celtics general manager, crossed paths plenty of times and became friendly over the years.

The flowing locks, which Tripucka sometimes wore in a tight perm, are long gone. But March 19, 1981, at the Omni in Atlanta is never too far below the surface of his chrome dome.

“That game is always brought up, and it ruins my day,” he said. “There’s a few. My last high school game, I scored 56, and we lost in the [New Jersey] semifinals. That still gets my stomach turned.”

But in his mind’s eye, he still can see Ainge catching the inbounds pass in stride and heading up the court for the most infamous shot in Notre Dame basketball history.

“We had that game in hand, and we didn’t do some correct things — I’ll just say that,” Tripucka said.

“The wrong guy [was] catching the ball, No. 1, and catching it the way he did. You never allow a guy to catch the ball going up the floor. Make him catch the ball facing the other way, and make him stop. Then the best he gets is a desperation halfcourt shot.”

Instead, a Notre Dame team that included three first-round NBA picks that June, plus two more future first-rounders in John Paxson and reserve Joe Kleine, would go home empty-handed. Losing to Duke in the Final Four, followed by NCAA losses to Magic Johnson’s Michigan State (regional final) and Missouri (second round) the next two years — those all hurt.

But the shock of the BYU loss always will linger for Tripucka.

“We should have won at least one [NCAA title] here,” he said. “The four years I was here, I consider the greatest four years in Notre Dame basketball history, if you look at the record and the players we had.

‘‘But hey, that’s life. What are you going to do?”

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