CLEVELAND -- The Kentucky Wildcats were always going to have to endure a crisis in this tournament, at least one, and Notre Dame was here to give them their come-to-Touchdown-Jesus moment. The Fighting Irish were not interested in putting up a fight, or in waking up the echoes with a performance destined to fall one basket short.
The Irish were here to win. As soon as they dispatched Duke and North Carolina -- in North Carolina, of all places -- on back-to-back nights to win the ACC tournament, the Irish realized they were strong enough to take their first national championship, and to destroy Kentucky's vision of a 40-0 season along the way.
So it's fairly obvious what this 68-66 victory in the Midwest Regional final means, right? If the Wildcats could survive that kind of effort from Notre Dame, and that kind of Jerian Grant go-for-broke shot with one second left that came straight out of South Bend Central Casting, they are not going to lose at the Final Four.
You know what people are going to say now about these tall, willowy Wildcats: What doesn't kill you makes you longer. Their extreme length, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said, "shrinks the court" and "wears you out."
Liberated by this near-death experience, Kentucky can go ahead and reach past Wisconsin in the semis and past Duke or someone else in the final and complete the perfect season. The Badgers are a terrific team with NBA talent on their front line, and Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker will test this Kentucky team every bit as much as they tested Kentucky at the Final Four last season, when Aaron Harrison stole the game on his dagger of a 3.
But nobody can push the Wildcats any more than Notre Dame pushed them Saturday night in Quicken Loans Arena. They knew this kind of challenge was lurking nearby, like a bogeyman in the closet, and one frightening enough to scare them right out of their dream season.
They won't be scared of any endgame drama with Wisconsin now, or of any endgame drama in a possible showdown with Duke, the one school the loyalists in Lexington can't bear to lose to, not after Grant Hill threw that pass and Christian Laettner made that shot in a different life. Kentucky is by far the best team in the country, everyone knows that. Now the Wildcats are bigger, better and bolder for the Notre Dame experience, and the smart money says that's going to be an unbeatable combination next weekend in Indianapolis.
"We were just fighting to stay in the game, to be honest with you," Kentucky coach John Calipari said when it was over, "and it was nice to see how it finished for these kids."
For most of the second half, the Irish seemed positive they were about to score their biggest upset since 1974, when they ended UCLA's 88-game winning streak at the expense of John Wooden and Bill Walton. Notre Dame held a six-point lead with 6 minutes left, a five-point lead with a little more than 5 minutes left, a four-point lead with a little more than 4 minutes left.
Pat Connaughton, possible starter in Buck Showalter's future rotation for the Baltimore Orioles, threw some high and hard heat to set this tone early in the second half, slicing down the lane and rising high for a thunderous two-handed dunk that inspired Calipari to call a timeout. Connaughton swaggered toward his bench with his tongue out. Ashley Judd, Kentucky superfan, doubled over in agony and grabbed her blue cap, before New Jersey governor Chris Christie popped up on the videoboard dressed in Irish colors and mouthing, "Go Notre Dame," while he undoubtedly readied himself to hug and high-five the nearest Notre Dame administrator he could find.
But Kentucky punched back with everything it had, scoring 24 points inside the final 11 minutes, making every field goal it attempted (nine) inside the final 12 minutes, and shooting 75 percent from the floor in the second half. Tyler Ulis nailed a saving 3 out of a Calipari timeout, Aaron Harrison nailed the same kind of saving 3 he threw at Wisconsin and Michigan last year, and Karl-Anthony Towns, the 6-foot-11 freshman from New Jersey who scored one point against West Virginia ("Karl gave us ugats, nothing," Calipari had said) delivered a monster 25-point night that might make him the first pick in the NBA draft, never mind the second.
"He was unbelievable," Calipari said.
With Towns in foul trouble and playing less-than-intense defense, the coach ignored the aides who were telling him to get the big man off the floor.
"He was the only guy scoring," Calipari said. "I had to leave him in."
He was the second-best coach on the floor, or so Calipari himself suggested. Brey kept calling for pick-and-rolls on the wings, and Calipari took the blame for never coming up with an answer.
"We had 'em where we wanted," said Notre Dame's Zach Auguste, who somehow finished with 20 points and nine rebounds against Kentucky's towering bigs and matched Towns' 10-for-13 from the field.
"Our guys felt we had a great chance to win," Brey said.
Only with the score tied inside the closing minute, the exhausted Irish couldn't get a shot at the basket and committed their first turnover of the second half with 34 seconds left. Andrew Harrison got fouled on his drive, made his free throws with six seconds left, and then yelled at Willie Cauley-Stein, all 7 feet of him, to track Grant as the Notre Dame star raced down the court and headed to the corner near the Irish bench.
Grant double pumped as he fired over all those endlessly long Kentucky bodies jumping at him, and the shot never had a chance. "Desperation," Harrison called the source of his team's motivation on the defensive end.
The lead changed 20 times on this night, all you need to know about the quality of the game. When the buzzer sounded, the Wildcats jumped into each other's arms as the Notre Dame players planted their hands on their hips and heads. Calipari walked over to the broadcast table, exhaled, and mouthed the word, "Wow." Someone carried out a ladder for the net-cutting ceremony, and soon enough the Wildcats were in their regional championship T-shirts and caps and accepting a trophy not quite as significant as the one most likely to come.
"What a job Notre Dame did today," Calipari told the crowd over a microphone. "Why don't we give them a hand. What a great basketball team."
The coach went on to thank his players' parents "for allowing this to happen," and to praise his team's "great will to win." Calipari was more relieved than overjoyed. He knew he was seconds away from feeling the devastation Bill Belichick felt in February 2008, when the Patriots should have become the first 19-0 team in NFL history.
"We're undefeated," Calipari said Saturday night, "but we're not perfect. We showed that tonight."
The Kentucky Wildcats also showed they have the strength and poise to cover for their imperfections. Yes, they survived an arena full of Irish ghosts and goblins breathing life into the kind of Notre Dame mythology built on nights like these. It's going to be fun to watch these really tall kids go 40-0.