Notre Dame’s 8-0 start featured three quality wins, 100 more rebounds than its opponents and a regular, successful parade of Irishmen to the free throw line courtesy a patient, persistent interior effort.
The final 25 minutes of Wednesday night’s 72-58 loss to Kentucky included none of the above.
Rather, a 13-2 end-half run by the Wildcats snowballed into a debilitating 26-6 stretch that propelled the freshman fueled, No. 16 basketball blue bloods to victory in front of 18,000-plus Kentucky fans in the purported neutral site of Louisville’s Freedom Hall.
The veteran Irish endured a sea of blue in the stands and a court reconstructed in homage to the home-staters, but were ultimately undone by a 14:54 span that contained just three field goals and eight points as the game turned in favor of John Calipari’s precocious freshmen.
A 38-27 lead built on guile, ball movement, and brilliant shooting by senior Ben Hansbrough devolved into a flurry of turnovers, bricks and poor offensive decisions by the team that was supposed to know better.
Hansbrough scored 19 points in the game’s first 15 minutes to stake the Irish to its 11-point advantage but a powerful dunk between two Irish defenders by top frosh Terrence Jones turned the tide. The play counted for two points, but the momentum swung the way of the Wildcats who poured in 13 of the first half’s final 15 points as well as 13 of the second stanza’s initial 17.
Jones finished with 27 points and 17 rebounds and the ‘Cats outrebounded the Irish 42-34 at contest’s end.
Though battle-tested already, Notre Dame nonetheless folded under Kentucky’s relentless athleticism and physical prowess, shooting just 36 percent from the floor and 6-23 from long range. Five of those 3-point goals came courtesy of Hansbrough in a 9-minute first half stretch.
Mike Brey’s senior-laden squad didn’t go away easily but did fail to capitalize on two crucial second half chances. After falling behind 10, 56-46 at the 8:56 mark, the Irish cut the lead to four with just over five to play. The failure to secure a board on the other end led to a second-chance 3-point goal by Kentucky’s Jones stretching the advantage back to seven.
One minute later down five, the Irish missed a pair of free throws, this time by sophomore Jack Cooley. It wasn’t the first – or last – instance of missed foul shots that could have stemmed the talented ‘Cats tide. Hansbrough front-rimmed the front end of a one-and-one early; Cooley missed both with under five and later, senior Tyrone Nash failed to connect on a pair in an attempt to cut a late lead to six.
Jones outscored the Irish 8-2 in a crucial three-minute end-game span to put the contest out of reach.
Hansbrough led Notre Dame with 21 points but his ineffective final 20 minutes proved fatal as only Carleton Scott found any second half rhythm, finishing with 10 points in support along with eight rebounds.
A non-factor for most of the evening, senior Tim Abromaitis struggled to a four-point finish, hitting just one of seven shots from the field while missing all four of his three-point offerings.
Meanwhile, Jones’ freshman mate Brandon Knight poured in 20 for the Wildcats. The first-year tandem served as Kentucky’s only double-digit scorers.
Previously potent from the charity stripe, Notre Dame missed eight of 20 freebies to ensure their frustrating fate.
Kentucky moved to 6-2 on the season and will take on Indiana on Saturday. The Irish fell to 8-1 with a chance to bounce back vs. Gonzaga Saturday night at the Purcell Pavilion.