Throughout their careers, Kyle McAlarney, Ryan Ayers, Zach Hillesland and Luke Zeller have all seen their share of highs and lows in the program. They saw the Irish hold the nation's longest active home winning streak at 45 games. They also saw, however, the brutal stretches like the seven-game losing streak that lasted just about a month, sending this season into a tailspin.
After Wednesday night, however, they can chalk up the victory over Kentucky as an impression that will recall cherished memories of successes in the Joyce Center. For McAlarney, after the contest he couldn't think of a better way of ending his Joyce Center career.
"What a way to go out," he said. "Especially against Kentucky. It's probably one of the most storied programs in college basketball. I mean, it felt like a Big East game out there. Our crowd was really into it. There was a lot of energy out there. We've been prepared for our last game at the Joyce Center for three games now, so tonight is obviously very special to go out like that."
Ayers echoed his teammate's words regarding the emotions after the victory in his last career home contest.
"Yeah, tonight was special," he said. "Like coach said, we're 52-3 in the last three years in this building and to go out with a win as a senior. Playing with these guys, it feels special and I'm just thankful for my four years here."
Now the Irish must travel to the site of their Big East Tournament loss against West Virginia a couple of weeks ago, Madison Square Garden, in New York City. Awaiting them will be Penn State, who handled Florida in its NIT quarterfinal game yesterday.
A LOT OF BLUE IN THE CROWD: In the first pair of home NIT contests at the Joyce Center, the Irish put up paltry attendance numbers, picking up just over 5,000 combined for both games. Wednesday night against Kentucky, Brey wanted to ensure that the seats would be filled. To do this, he sent out an e-mail to the entire Notre Dame student body guaranteeing free admission for every single student who managed to show up for the third round showdown. As if that wasn't motivation enough, Brey also added that he would purchase the student section pizza during the game to boost attendance.
As college students know, a free meal certainly goes a long way, and Brey's strategy ended up working out. The Leprechaun Legion, the name for the student section at the Joyce Center, was completely filled, providing supportive energy. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, however, the Wildcats traveled well, too. Several thousand Kentucky faithful made the drive north to South Bend, as patches of the lower bowl were scattered with spots of blue and white. At the end of the night, 7,636 made it out to see the Irish victory.
FROM DOWNTOWN: Part of the reason as to why Notre Dame's offense was as explosive as it was against the Wildcats was because of the accuracy the Irish put on display from three-point range.
When Luke Harangody opened up the scoring of the contest with a three, it became apparent that the long-distance shot would be an integral part of the Irish offense against Kentucky.
In the first half, the Irish shot 50-percent from beyond the arc going 7-of-14 from downtown. In the first period, Harangody and Tory Jackson each nailed one three-pointer apiece, while Ayers and McAlarney each hit two, respectively. Jonathan Peoples also added one from long-range in the first frame.
The second half featured much more of the accurate, long-distance shooting that helped give Notre Dame its first half lead. With just over eight minutes to play in the second period, the Irish were hovering at 55-percent shooting from three-point land, going 11-of-20. After the contest, however, coach Mike Brey acknowledged that it was a team effort that allowed this sort of shooting to be made possible.
"Yeah, that's probably the best we've shot in a while here, from a couple of different spots," Brey said. "I think there was an awareness of Gody, guys were really coming down on him and he did a great job of finding people. Tyrone Nash and Zach I thought did a great job screening for Ryan and Kyle and getting them looks. And we were going for it. That's how we play — running, shooting threes and going for it."
Overall, the Irish finished 12-of-25 on the day from three-point range.
IMPEDING JODIE MEEKS: Once the final buzzer sounded on the Wildcats' two-point victory over Creighton last Monday, coach Brey instantly knew that he would have to pay special attention to focus on the process of defending second team All-American shooting guard, Jodie Meeks. His solution was quite simple, however. All he had to do was to tell Ayers that he would be the one held responsible with keeping the proficient scorer in check.
To do so, Ayers exerted extra effort in denying Meeks the ball when other Wildcat players were looking to find the junior. At times when Ayers was on the bench, Peoples stepped up to the challenge, continuing Meeks' struggles. Coming off of his game-winning shot over Creighton, Meeks struggled mightily in the first half, scoring only a three-point shot on 1-of-3 shooting from the field. It was through the limitation of his touches that Meeks was unable to find his shooting rhythm.
"Yeah, I was a little surprised," Ayers said of Meeks' first half performance. "But my lane kind of distracted him for a little bit. We were talking about trying to make him a two-point scorer, so that was one of my themes going in; just keep denying the ball, limiting his touches, and that's how he only got three shots."
Although Meeks only hit one of his three attempts in the first half, the junior guard did find his rhythm in the middle of the second frame. After draining a pair of consecutive three-pointers with just over 11 minutes left to play, the sense of urgency could be seen in his eyes. As a result, Meeks went on a little run, especially from three-point range. Not coincidentally, once Meeks caught fire, so did the Wildcats, as the junior almost single-handedly brought Kentucky back into the contest. On one possession, with Ayers quickly becoming fatigued from keeping Meeks in check throughout the contest, Jackson found himself face-to-face with the prolific scorer. At the end of the day, Meeks finished with 21 points on 6-of-10 shooting from the field and 5-of-8 from beyond the arc.