Notre Dame and the pain of coming close

CLEVELAND -- It's different on the inside.

On Friday afternoon, the first question of Mike Brey's news conference was whether the Notre Dame Fighting Irish coach had considered what it would be like to have "everybody outside the Commonwealth of Kentucky cheering for you on Saturday night?" Brey was happy for the support. He'd received some "great texts," he said, presumably from far-flung and infrequent correspondents, texts Brey wouldn't have received had the Irish found themselves playing, say, the West Virginia Mountaineers in the Elite Eight.

"We are America's team, tomorrow," he said. No one in the room chalked that newfound status up to a sudden nationwide love affair with crisp spread collars and crisper spread offense.

Before, during and long after the Midwest Region final was decided, the outside world would define the Irish only in relation to their opponents. The unbeaten Kentucky Wildcats are the only story that matters in this 2015 NCAA tournament; the only relevant question ever asked about this field is whether anyone can halt UK before it goes 40-0. On Saturday night, Notre Dame would either be The Team That Stopped The Unstoppable or just one more moon in Big Blue Planet's orbit.

Not on the inside. On the inside -- within the small Quicken Loans Arena locker room they inhabited this weekend, in team meetings and walk-throughs, and in the heart of every player wearing navy and green and gold -- Saturday night's stakes weren't about the context. When Jerian Grant's last-ditch triple-clutch would-be winner sailed past the iron, and the buzzer sounded and the game was suddenly over, the shock and sadness that struck Notre Dame dumb, that left its players standing and staring disbelievingly at an unchanging scoreboard, had absolutely nothing to do with what it meant for the 2015 Kentucky Wildcats.

On the inside, the Irish were mourning what it meant for them.

"You know what's really depressing?" Brey said in the locker room after the Irish had eventually cleared the court. "We lost the game, but we don't get to practice tomorrow. I don't get to be around this group. ... "I was thinking, walking down the hall -- that's over. You don't get to do that anymore.

"I don't know if it will sink in."

From the end of the Irish's masterful second-half blitz of Wichita State, Notre Dame evinced nothing but calm confidence in the face of its overwhelming odds. Yes, of course, Kentucky was a great team, and sure, it would be special to be the only loss on a team's resume. But all weekend, Grant and Brey and Pat Connaughton -- the leadership troika of 2014-15's South Bend hoops renaissance -- couldn't help but greet questions about Kentucky's greatness with polite, subtle insistence: Hey, we're pretty good, too.

On Saturday night, they made their case plain. Brey's vaunted offense went toe-to-toe with college basketball's best defensive team in decades. It shot 22 of 42 from inside the arc against a team that has held opponents under 39 percent from 2-point territory this season. It scored 1.16 points per possession against a team that has allowed just .84 in all 38 of its wins. It scored 40 points in the paint, tied for the most Kentucky had yielded all season. Its lone center, Zach Auguste, got his 20 -- on 10-of-13 shooting -- all inside the lane, as he relentlessly and fearlessly attacked the best shot-blocking team since Anthony Davis relocated from whatever alien planet he was born on.

It was a stunningly Notre Dame performance: The Irish could get where they wanted to go, when they wanted to go there, as though Kentucky was a normal college basketball team and not a world-devouring, record-setting leviathan. The Irish held the Wildcats to a 40 percent offensive rebounding rate -- high, sure, but also well within the range of "normal," given the hilarious gap in size.

Brey couldn't have asked for much more. He knew John Calipari would pound the ball into Karl-Anthony Towns, and that Towns would probably dominate on every touch. But Brey also swore, before and after the game, that his offense was efficient enough to absorb 2-point shots.

For 37 minutes, 35 seconds, he was right. With 2:25 left to play, Grant answered Aaron Harrison's deep go-ahead 3-pointer with an even deeper go-ahead 3 of his own. This was typical Notre Dame, too: When games got tight, Grant always delivered something special.

And then the freaky Kentucky returned. With 38 seconds left and the score tied, Grant sent Willie Cauley-Stein backward with what he called his "best stepback of the night"-- only Cauley-Stein, with that impossible defensive range, somehow deflected the shot. The shot-clock violation that ensued was Notre Dame's first turnover in more than 22 minutes. Andrew Harrison's go-ahead free throws came at the end of a reliable drive (and Demetrius Jackson's foul), the kind of mundane winning play UK has generated in every close situation this season. And then Cauley-Stein chased Grant, one of the nation's quickest players, for 94 feet, forcing Grant into desperation corner without once breaking his monstrous stride.

The buzzer sounded. Cauley-Stein resumed those strides, this time in celebration, and all the Irish sideline could do was look up and gawk: Had it really ended so quickly? Could that truly be it?

"It's heartbreaking," Connaughton said, convinced the score could have been different with five more minutes, or five more seconds, before that cruel horn went off. "That's how close it was. A two-point ball game. You can look back on every play of the game. ... You can nitpick every little thing. But at the end of the day, that's basketball, that's sports, that's why we love it, that's why we get that rush from it. And that's why it's something you live and die with."

"That's how it is," Jackson said. "Win or lose, a game like this, everything's at stake."

To Jackson and the rest of his teammates, "everything" wasn't history. It wasn't the chance to become a sports trivia answer. It wasn't coming back to the Joyce Center in five, 10, 25 and 50 years, old and gray and misty-eyed with nostalgia, watching a video montage and waving to the standing crowd. Everything wasn't the context. Everything had nothing to do with Kentucky.

On the inside, one more day -- one more practice, one more game, one more chance to play basketball with the people you love -- was all the Irish wanted. And then, suddenly, everything was gone.

"You really don't believe it, you know?" Grant said. "You really don't understand that you're not going to be playing in this jersey anymore. With these guys.

"It hurts."