Kentucky survives nail-biter against Notre Dame to stay perfect
CLEVELAND—There were Kentucky players wearing hats that said 'REGIONAL CHAMPIONS' and shirts that said 'CUT THE NET.' There was a ladder and a pair of scissors being passed around, and a shooting guard holding a selfie stick. There was a house DJ at Quicken Loans Arena playing the standards. "(Party Like It's) 1999." "I Just Want To Celebrate." All the elements were present to make it look like a party, but for everyone who'd lived through the preceding 40 minutes of basketball, it was not a party. It was the still-shaking aftermath of The Almost-End of Perfection.
This was where it was nearly halted: Kentucky's quest for 40-0. In Cleveland, at the hands of Notre Dame, which started four guards, had a suspect defense and gave up what seemed like a full foot in every matchup against the nation's tallest team. These are the moments we will flash back on if the Wildcats match 1976 Indiana, the UCLA legends and 1956 USF as an undefeated champ. Irish layups upon layups on backcuts in a 31-31 first half. A baby-faced and wavy-haired kid named Steve Vasturia hitting a transition three to put Notre Dame up 59-53 with 6:14 left. A tie game (not just a tie game, but an absolute instant tournament classic) with less than 10 seconds left in the Elite Eight, only two days after Kentucky laughed at West Virginia and routed it by 39. And a Jerian Grant three-pointer in the air as the final seconds expired late in the evening of March 29, 2015, with the score 68-66 in the Wildcats's favor, but their destiny no longer in their control.
"I've been on the other side of it, shooting that ball," said Kentucky's Aaron Harrison, who sunk Michigan with a last-possession three in the Elite Eight last year, and then did it to Wisconsin in the Final Four. "It goes really slow. It's terrifying."
The whole night was like that for the Wildcats. A slow and terrifying buildup to the historic moment they did not want. They watched Notre Dame's confidence grow as it kept spreading the floor and picking apart the country's No. 1 defense with wing ballscreens, and somehow grabbed offensive rebounds (13 in all!) through the trees. That 100-pound coat that coach John Calipari talked about his players wearing back in November? It grew to 1,000 pounds on Saturday night, wearing on not just them but on their coach.
"The tightest I've seen him," junior Willie Cauley-Stein said of Calipari. "It puts pressure on you."
How bad was the tension? Ask Andrew Harrison, the point guard who saved them by waving off three options on the final possession—no lob to Cauley-Stein, no post feed to Karl Anthony-Towns, no kick out to twin brother Aaron—and drove to the basket. Harrison drew a blocking foul on Demetrius Jackson and then made eventual game-winning free throws. But when asked what he was feeling after the buzzer, Harrison only said, "Relief."
The tension was such that Calipari's wife, Ellen, stood stoically watching the Wildcats cutting down the nets, her nerves too frayed to fully enjoy the moment. "Let's call that a horrible game," she said. "I couldn't even look at the scoreboard."
It was such that the father of the freshman 7-footer who carried Kentucky's offense in the second half, going 8 of 8 from the field for 17 of his career-high 25 points, briefly excused himself from an on-court interview to take a deep breath. "I can't take it!" said Karl Towns Sr. "I couldn't take the pressure. We don't need these types of games."
Kentucky, the overwhelming favorite to win the national title, did not need a scare heading into Indianapolis, but that's what it got. And it was Towns, who was virtually absent against West Virginia, scoring just one point in 13 minutes, who made good on his vow to re-appear in the Elite Eight. After Calipari said publicly that Towns had given the team "nothing" in the Sweet 16, Towns told his father: I have to make up for that. People are going to see me show up against Notre Dame.
"And that's what he did," Towns Sr. said. "He was a stud. I'm proud of him, because he put them on his back."
In October and November, Towns was the blue-chip center who got pushed around in practice and, as teammate Tyler Ulis said, was "crying like a little baby" over fouls. In the Elite Eight, Towns was the unstoppable force in the paint, and Cauley-Stein called him a monster. "When [Karl's] playing like that," he said, "you just give him the ball and get out of the way."
The Wildcats's offensive solution on a night where they struggled to shoot from deep was clear and easy: feed Towns. His final point-blank make tied the game at 66 with 1:12 left.
Kentucky's defense, however, had a harder time finding its way with no one-man solution. For one of the first times this season, it was reacting (and often reacting a step slow) rather than dictating. The third offensive key on Notre Dame's whiteboard, prior to the game, was "Great movement = Great shots," and the Irish's shooting percentage was hovering over the 50 percent mark until the final two minutes.
That's when Kentucky's defense reverted to its old self, stringing together three consecutive stops to close the game. Andrew Harrison said it was a matter of desperation.
"We had no choice or we were going to lose."
On the most nerve-wracking possession of all, Grant was isolated at the top of the key against Cauley-Stein, the athletic 7-footer who's made his name by defending any and all positions. The clock ticked under 40 seconds. Grant went to his signature move: a step-back to set up a jumper. "It was one of my better space-creating moves of the night," he said. Cauley-Stein called it "one of the fastest step-backs I've guarded."
Grant thought his dribble-move had Cauley-Stein leaning backward. The Irish guard was amazed when Cauley-Stein, in what was only his latest freak-of-nature play on defense this season, found a way to get a finger on the ball. He had defended the Fred VanVleet three at the end of Kentucky's upset of Wichita State in the 2014 tourney, and he one-upped himself here by actually altering its flight. It set up a shot-clock violation, which set up the Andrew Harrison drive-and-free-throws, which set up Grant's potential game-winner at the buzzer, with Andrew Harrison and Cauley-Stein flying at him in the left corner.
For Notre Dame, hope was in the air for 39-plus minutes. Its coach, Mike Brey, said the deeper the game went, the more the improbable seemed possible. "We just felt," he said, "like we could win the game." Grant said that when he released the shot, it felt good.
It was long. By a lot. The upset was not to be. Kentucky is strong enough that even a great team's peak effort was not enough.
"It's just like a weight off your shoulders," said Cauley-Stein. "You look at your teammates like, dude, we really pulled that off. We played arguably our worst game defensively and still made stops and still did things to win the game. … I've got dudes texting me from way back home [saying], 'You shouldn't have won that game.' … I'm like, you're right. But we've got guys who can make plays at the end, and that's what makes this team special."
With its dream season about to die, Kentucky made its final nine shots from the field. It held Notre Dame scoreless for the final 2:35. The upset was there and then it wasn't. One of history's greatest teams was gone and then it was cutting nets. Perfectly terrified for a while, but still perfect.