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Notre Dame does everything needed to beat Kentucky, but still can't do it

CLEVELAND – So that’s how you beat Kentucky. That’s how you pull off college basketball’s mission impossible and send a shudder of terror through the Bluegrass State. You turn its beloved Wildcats into an uncertain bunch chasing the game on both ends, throwing their hands up in frustration, scraping around for any sense of rhythm. And then you still don’t beat Kentucky. You watch as a team moves to 38-0 and takes selfies with a trophy on a dais, heading to the Final Four to await the next would-be miracle-workers.

It had been 41 years since Notre Dame authored the greatest upset in the sport’s history, and it had another in its grasp on Saturday thanks to an immaculate plan. The Irish answered perfection with perfection itself. And then it was 68-66, Kentucky, in the end. In the corner of the Quicken Loans Arena floor, near the spot from which he hoisted the potential game-winner that did not fall at the buzzer, star guard Jerian Grant sat with his arms folded across his knees and not a hint of emotion in his eyes. Pat Connaughton stood frozen at the free-throw line, hands on his hips, staring into emptying stands as the public address announcer declared the Wildcats the Midwest Regional champions.

Teammates lingered nearby and then threw their arms around the two captains before they all walked into the tunnel to sort out what happened here. Here, where Notre Dame moved and cut and passed and rebounded and drained massive shots and played without fear. Here, where it did everything it needed to do to beat Kentucky, all the way up to the part where it actually beat Kentucky.

“We let one slip,” Grant said. “The biggest game of the year, we let it slip.”

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Theirs was an impeccable strategy executed as well as conceivable. If someone has filed the game plan from Jan. 19, 1974 in the Hesburgh Library stacks, blow off the dust coating the shelf space next to it. Whatever Notre Dame did then to end UCLA’s 88-game winning streak now has a worthy neighbor.

“We’re really disappointed we didn’t get it,” Brey said, “because we felt we could get it.”

In the lower right corner of a locker room dry-erase board, Notre Dame’s offensive keys were scribbled in black and white:

Pick our Spots to Run & Attack.

WE Control Tempo.

Great Movement = Great Shots.

The relatively undersized Irish knew they could not attack the rim against the Moai statues Kentucky deploys as a frontline for its top-ranked defense. So they decided to take the big men as far away from the rim as possible. No Notre Dame player occupied a spot in the lane. All of them hovered around the three-point line, moving from spot to spot, replacing each other and then circling back, occasionally setting up a side pick-and-roll. The Irish lulled the Wildcats with this drowsy choreography. When someone bolted to the rim on a backdoor cut, he found no one protecting the bucket when he got there.

Five Out!, Irish coach Mike Brey barked from the sideline before early possessions, until it was superfluous to do so. That’s all his team was going to run anyway.

The result was 1.158 points per possession against Kentucky, which had allowed just .703 coming in. Notre Dame had 20 dunks or layups. It had a six-point lead with six minutes to play and a two-point lead with under two minutes to go. The Irish averaged 24 seconds per possession, surrendered just two fast-break points and assisted on 16 of their 26 baskets. They got 20 points on 10-of-13 shooting from the propulsive 6’10” Zach Auguste—or should it be Zach March?—to help offset what Kentucky’s giants produced.

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“People underestimated our ability to play Notre Dame basketball at this level,” Connaughton said. “People underestimated that the way we play would work against elite-level competition. We showed it could.”

Yet all it took was a flinch, a regression to basketball hubris, and it all came tumbling down.

When Kentucky recaptured the lead on a long Aaron Harrison three-pointer with 3:15 to go, Grant responded with a cold-blooded strike of his own from long range. Without the multifarious 6’5” senior distributing or penetrating or confidently stroking dream-killing shots, Notre Dame’s brilliant offense sputters and fails. On Saturday, Grant wore socks with a Superman crest on the back. For one night, pushing his heroism beyond his hosiery proved fatal.

Instead of working the offense as it had all night on its final two full possessions, Grant called his own number, seeking to stick the step-back jumpers he has hit time and again. Neither fell. It was but a crack, the smallest opening, and Kentucky snuck through it. “Extreme confidence—that’s why I called those isolation plays like I did,” Grant said. “If I could go back, I think we’d move the ball around a little more, but those step-backs have been going in all year. It just didn’t go in tonight.”

That’s all it takes. That’s all it took. Notre Dame had the perfect plan and brought that plan into reality. It brought itself to the brink of a March eruption.

Instead, for the 38th time in 38 tries, Kentucky won.

“We emptied the tank tonight,” Brey said, “and that’s all I asked them to do.”

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As he left the arena floor and headed toward his team’s locker room, Kentucky coach John Calipari met some familiar faces: Cavaliers players such as J.R. Smith and Brendan Haywood and Kendrick Perkins, making their way to the exits after sitting in a luxury box with teammate LeBron James, absorbing a night without peer this March.

Calipari smiled and glad-handed, floating along with joy and exasperation.

“How about that?” he asked the pros before him. “I don’t know how we got that. I don’t know what happened there.”

Down the hall a bit, Notre Dame might have had an answer for him. An opponent confidently threw all it possibly could at Calipari’s team and had it thrown back in its face nonetheless. As the clock neared midnight and reporters cleared the room, Connaughton slumped back into his locker stall and folded his hands on his lap. Grant pulled up a chair.

They considered what they’d done, and how it was at all possible that it wasn’t enough.  

“It’s extremely tough to know how close we were to doing something special,” Grant said. “Now it’s all over.”

This is how you beat Kentucky, Notre Dame showed the world. Somehow, it ends poorly.