NOTRE DAME, Ind. – After this weekend, there will be eight Division I men's college basketball teams left playing and Notre Dame will be one of them.
The Irish (21-14) defeated Kentucky 77-67 in the NIT quarterfinals at the Joyce Center on Wednesday night. The Irish, a No. 2 seed, will face another No. 2 seed in Penn State in the semifinals on Tuesday, March 31 at Madison Square Garden.
"We're excited to get to New York," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said.
"We're all super excited, this was our goal coming into the NIT," Kyle McAlarney said. "We're extremely excited and we're looking at cutting down the nets in the Garden so it's not over yet."
Kentucky, the four-seed in Notre Dame's part of the bracket, finishes its season with a 22-14 overall record and head coach Billy Gillespie's future in question.
Luke Harangody led the Irish with 30 points and 11 rebounds while McAlarney added 15, Ryan Ayers 14 and Tory Jackson 10. Notre Dame knocked down 12 of its 25 three-point attempts and shot 44.6% from the floor.
The Irish led for the entire first half, but were never able to create too much distance and took an eight-point lead into the break.
In the second half, Notre Dame did create some separation, but Kentucky managed to claw back. The Irish survived a furious late rally from the Wildcats to hang on for the win.
While Kentucky had to settle for five free throws from Patterson in the first five minutes of the second half, Notre Dame got three-pointers from Ayers, Harangody and Jonathan Peoples before Harangody made a hook shot and a free throw to give the Irish a 46-33 advantage.
Gillespie called a timeout after Harangody put back a Peoples miss to give the Irish a 15-point lead with 14:03 left.
But then Meeks took over.
Meeks drilled a pair of three-pointers to get the Wildcats to within 11 and did not stop even after a drive by Jackson and a three from McAlarney increased Notre Dame's lead to 57-41 with 10 minutes to play.
Meeks scored five straight points before a Perry Stevenson dunk cut the margin to 10 and Meeks hit a three after a Harangody bucket to make it a single-digit game at 64-55 with less than five to play.
"It looked like we were on the verge of putting that thing away, but he is just a such a potent guy," Brey said of Meeks. "Two threes and all of a sudden it's a game again. He kept the game pressure on us, we just couldn't get away."
McAlarney hit a pair of free throws to stretch the lead back to 11, but Ramon Harris drilled a three-pointer and another Meeks bucket made it a 66-60 game with 3:30 left.
After a Harangody free throw and another Stevenson dunk, the lead was down to five with 2:45 left. McAlarney and Harangody calmly sank four free throws after a Patterson free throw to give the Irish some breathing room with an eight-point lead and a minute left to play.
Darius Miller made a bucket to make it a six-point game, but McAlarney and Harangody made four more free throws before an Ayers dunk clinched it.
Harangody got the Irish off to a great start and set an early tone against Patterson.
"It was great to get off to a good start for myself inside and outside," said Harangody. "He's one of the best post players in the country, so getting into a rhythm like that was key for me."
Harangody scored the first seven Notre Dame points before a McAlarney three gave the Irish a 10-4 lead four minutes in. Meeks nailed a three-pointer, his only bucket of the half, to start a mini 7-2 run for the Wildcats to cut the lead to one.
Peoples came off the bench to hit a three and Ayers hit back-to-back trifectas as the Irish went on a 10-3 run to take a 26-18 lead with nine minutes to go in the half.
Kentucky was able to make it a four-point game, but three-pointers from McAlarney and Jackson gave the Irish a 34-24 lead less than 90 seconds before halftime. A Josh Harrellson bucket cut the lead to 34-26 at the half.
The Irish shot 42.9% from the field in the first half and hit seven of their 14 three-point attempts. Harangody led Notre Dame with 13 first-half points while Jackson, Ayers and McAlarney had six apiece.
Eight Kentucky players scored in the first half, but the high man was Patterson with just six points.