SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame overcame a slow start to score an early-season victory it craved.
The Irish upset No. 8 Kentucky 64-50 in front of 9,149 fans, which included a large portion of the football team, in Purcell Pavilion on Thursday night. Football captains Tyler Eifert (a Bishop Dwenger grad), Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zack Martin and Manti Te’o received a standing ovation when introduced at halftime.
I think this boosts our confidence that we can do it against a really good team, an elite team, Irish guard Eric Atkins said of beating defending NCAA champion Kentucky (4-2). I feel like we kind of got that St. Joe game back.
Notre Dame (7-1), which lost to St. Joseph’s 79-70 in overtime Nov. 16, made only four of its first 12 shots but finished the game hitting 24 of 50 from the floor.
Notre Dame had four players score in double digits with Atkins leading the way with 15. Jack Cooley and Jerian Grant each had 13, and Cameron Biedscheid had 10. Cooley also had 11 rebounds for his sixth double-double of the season
The Irish shot 8 for 15 from three-point range (53.3 percent) to go along with their 48 percent shooting from the floor in the win.
We didn’t look at it as an upset, Irish coach Mike Brey said. We just kind of felt that we had a team that has played together and could get into our rhythm against a very talented young group.
The Irish limited the Wildcats to 18-of-47 shooting (40.4 percent). Kentucky’s Julius Mays scored 16 points, and Nerlens Noel added 10.
Notre Dame finished with a 33-27 rebounding advantage, which was a focus entering the game against Kentucky’s athletic front line, and the Irish held the Wildcats to seven second-chance points and only four fast-break points.
You just got to take a mindset that your guy is not going to get the rebound, Cooley said. You are going to make sure you get the rebound, it goes out of bounds or it hits the floor.
Atkins scored his team’s first six points as Notre Dame fell into a 12-6 hole 5 minutes into the game. The Irish were able to stay close with the Wildcats and only trailed 14-10 with 12:39 left in the first half.
Notre Dame settled in and erased its deficit with a 17-4 run over the next 8 minutes to take a 27-18 lead. Atkins and Cam Biedscheid each scored five in the run.
The Irish went into halftime with a 36-25 lead, going 15 for 27 in the opening half and holding an 18-11 rebounding advantage. Kentucky was 9-for-24 shooting in the first half.
We believe in ourselves, Irish guard Scott Martin said. This core group really knows what it is capable of. I think the win helps us, but I wouldn’t say it was a huge stride.
Notre Dame pushed its advantage to 55-35 midway through the second half, and the Irish started to burn the clock with the 20-point lead.
Kentucky was able to cut its deficit only to 10, 60-50, with 2:34 to play as Notre Dame fans closed the game by directing an overrated chant at the Wildcats then rushing the court after the buzzer.
We just love playing here, Cooley said. Our fans are great, just our whole football team was here this game. This is just a nice homey stadium we got, and it makes the fans all the much better. To have them out there with us and fighting for us is huge.