CLEVELAND – Mike Brey’s emotions were waging in an internal war as he gathered his thoughts following Notre Dame’s 68-66 loss to Kentucky in Saturday night’s Midwest Regional championship.
On one hand, the opportunity the Irish let go by the wayside felt like the world’s greatest chance for glory slipping off their fingertips like a game-winning pass in the end zone.
Kentucky, undefeated and seeking history-making perfection, was ripe to fall.
By failing to score over the final 2:33, allowing the game-tying bucket to Karl-Anthony Towns and the game-winning free throws to Andrew Harrison with six seconds remaining, college basketball’s greatest story – even greater than a 40-0 Kentucky season – will remain untold.
And yet here was Brey, who coached a 15-17 team from a year ago to the ACC championship and within seconds or a bucket of ending the reign of perhaps the greatest college basketball team of all-time, bursting with pride in the team that responded to every challenge.
“I told them I was honored to coach this group and certainly honored to have two senior leaders like Jerian (Grant) and Pat (Connaughton),” said Brey, voice cracking, as he relayed the message given to his team.
“The thing that’s disappointing is you can’t go to practice tomorrow. It’s over now, and this group was so uplifting.”
Uplifting, inspirational, fearless, unbreakable and almost unbeatable.
The Fighting Irish won eight games in a row to claim the ACC championship, and then exploded their way into the Midwest Regional championship with another one of their patented offensive outbursts against Wichita State Thursday night.
Against the Wildcats, the Irish said, “We’re coming at you!” While the rest of the nation talked about Notre Dame needing double-digit three-pointers to even have a chance against Kentucky, the Irish converted four and attempted just 14. They had a much different plan.
Instead, Notre Dame attacked the basket against Kentucky’s two seven-footers, one 6-foot-11 big man, and another 6-foot-10 frontcourt player as if they were entitled to get to the basket. Sometimes it didn’t work. The Wildcats blocked nine shots, six in the first half.
But the Irish set the tone from the outset. They were going to go for this thing and they didn’t care how big Kentucky was or how many games they had won.
“We came into the game thinking we were going to win,” said Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste, who converted 10-of-13 field-goal attempts to finish with 20 points and nine rebounds, prompting Brey to suggest that Auguste will enter next season as one of the nation’s more ballyhooed bigs.
“We didn’t come in thinking they were the best team in the country; we felt like we were. We were expecting to win this game. We just didn’t execute to win.
“Our goal was to win a national championship and we came up short. We were happy to be here, but we’re not happy where we got. Our main goal was to get a championship and we fell just short.”
Installed as 11-point underdogs, the Irish never gave any indication that they were intimidated or felt like an upset was necessary to advance to the Final Four in Indianapolis against Wisconsin – winners of their West Regional championship game against Arizona.
“Notre Dame basketball,” was Pat Connaughton’s precise, poignant summation of how the Irish played with such confidence. ““We came out and played our game of basketball, and it brought us to the point where we thought we could win the game.
“I don’t think many people thought it would be that close. But our guys did everything they possibly could and they’ve done everything that I’ve asked of them as a captain for the entire year.”
Gracious in defeat and complimentary of Kentucky, which won its 38th game in a row, the Irish won aspects of the game that many never would have imagined pre-game, let alone when the year began.
Notre Dame out-rebounded the Wildcats on the offensive end, 13-10, and was just one shy of Kentucky overall (29-28) on the backboards. The Irish doubled-up Kentucky in assists, 16-8. Notre Dame had four less turnovers than the Wildcats (11-7), including an astonishing one turnover in the second half. Fast break points? Against Kentucky? Notre Dame won that category, 12-2.
The game was tied 12 times and the lead exchanged hands 20 times. Notre Dame needed one more lead exchange.
“They chased it as a group,” Brey said. “The guys that didn’t play got it, understood it, were part of it. We really had a mature vibe about us the whole time, and there was a fearlessness about us. I love the fact a lot of those tough guys are coming back.
“The whole season was (a statement). Hopefully it can give us momentum as we keep trying to figure out the ACC. Fabulous year, but we’re really disappointed because we felt we could get it.”
The performance – not just against Kentucky but throughout the entire season – prompted Brey to gush about his team over and over and over again.
“I told them how proud I was of them,” Brey said. “One of the things I talked to them about was emptying the tank tonight, and we did. I’m really proud of our group. We felt we could win the game as we prepared. It played out that way throughout it.”
Asked how bitter it was and how difficult it would be recovering from a game in which it felt as if the Irish were the better team, Brey had to stop and gather his thoughts.
“I don’t think it would have been an upset,” Brey said. “We never believed that with our little group, and that’s probably why we had a chance. But yeah, it feels like a missed opportunity because we really did have an opportunity to close it.”
The Irish players were reluctant to say that they were the better team or that they deserved to win over Kentucky, which is a direct reflection of their head coach.
“You can’t say you’re the better team when you didn’t win the game, but we definitely played well,” Connaughton said. “We gave them a run for their money, something that I don’t think anybody expected.”
“We really felt like we could have won the game, maybe should have won the game,” said Jerian Grant, whose desperation, on-the-run three-pointer from the corner was long. “But they made more plays than we did, and that’s what it came down to.”
“We put ourselves in good position,” said Steve Vasturia. “We had the lead at the end of the game. We played pretty well defensively and we got some shots offensively. But they hit some big shots so you’ve got to give them credit.”
“They beat us and they’re really good,” said Demetrius Jackson. “They gave a great effort and we just fell a little short.”
As Brey walked back from his post-game press conference with Auguste and Vasturia, he talked about building it back up for next year. He also had a moment with Jackson, and shared with him his excitement about the leadership of the team being in his hands and on his shoulders.
It helped Brey find a silver lining in an otherwise crushing emotional moment.
“There’s some really good stuff going on in that locker room with that group, and Pat and Jerian were the ultimate role models,” Brey said. “To lead, to be fearless, to be unselfish, to set the tone for winning, to set the team goal…It was so pure. It was just so pure. I was spoiled. I hope we can bottle it and keep it going next season.
“The expectations of the group coming back will be very high. It’s a championship group. It’s certainly something to build on and we want to use the momentum coming back in other areas.”
Brey didn’t realize it as he talked, but within earshot was Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick, standing arm in arm with his wife, Kimberly.
“I am honored to be at Notre Dame,” Brey said. “We’ve got a heckuva program. I’m proud of what we’ve built. I like what we have coming back. We’re starting to be a player in the ACC. We’re starting to figure this thing out.”
One more stop, one more successful offensive possession, and the script would have included a trip to Indianapolis to play in the Final Four. It wasn’t meant to be, but it will go down as one of the most astonishing seasons in Notre Dame basketball history.
Amidst the sorrow remains the pride and drive of a champion.
“I don’t know if we’ll be able to digest it all tonight,” Brey said. “I just want them to know they’re champions and it’s an honor to coach them.”