Forget that 7-2 record.
Kentucky basketball is 0-1.
After Kentucky compiled a seven-game win streak against a tune-up schedule before familiar faces at Rupp Arena, we said we would learn a lot about John Calipari’s Wildcats in this three-game stretch of Notre Dame on the road, Ohio State in Las Vegas and Louisville in Lexington.
What we learned Saturday inside the Purcell Pavilion at the Joyce Center is that even after the extended list of dress rehearsals, the Cats were not ready to take their show on the road. Not yet.
College basketball final: Notre Dame 66, Kentucky 62.
Icy cold 2-for-19 shooting from three-point range certainly didn’t help the Cats’ cause, but where Kentucky allowed the Irish to break its three-game losing streak was on the defensive end. Down the stretch, time and again, possession after possession, the host Irish simply out-executed Kentucky on its offensive end of the floor.
After the Cats assumed a 54-51 lead with 7:22 remaining in a nip-and-tuck affair, Notre Dame guard Dane Goodwin scored inside off an assist from center Paul Atkinson assist. That got the ball rolling. Next, Atkinson himself scored inside. Then freshman guard Blake Wesley flashed open on an in-bounds pass for a point-blank dunk as various Wildcats stood and stared at other Wildcats.
Finally, with 3:50 to go, Goodwin scored again inside to complete an 8-0 run. Just like that, a patient Notre Dame had turned a three-point deficit into a 59-54 lead over a confused Kentucky.
“I think we were playing not to lose,” Calipari said afterward. “We had guys that froze on defense.”
Truth be told, most of this should have been expected. True, this was not Kentucky’s first game away from home. New York’s Madison Square Garden was the site of UK’s season-opening 79-71 loss to Duke in the Champions Classic. After that, however, Calipari scheduled seven straight confidence-builders so that his players could find a level of comfort with their teammates while the head coach could get a handle on his team.
Ultimately, however, adversity is the best teacher. And while the Big Blue Nation was well-represented inside the packed Joyce Center on Saturday, the Notre Dame fan base threw itself into the occasion. New football coach Marcus Freeman was introduced during a first-half timeout. Irish great LaPhonso Ellis was formally inducted into Notre Dame basketball’s Ring of Honor during halftime.
“It couldn’t have been drawn up any better,” Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said afterward.
Kentucky did its part by missing 17 of its 19 three-point shots. Remember, this was advertised as a far superior perimeter shooting team than the one that went 9-16 a season ago. But while those Cats ended up shooting 33.6 percent from behind the arc, the current collection is now at 30.2 percent. Over the last four games, UK is 21-for-90 from beyond the arc for 23.3 percent.
That wasn’t a problem Saturday when Oscar Tshiebwe was dominating in the paint on his way to a career-high 25 points. But when Notre Dame began doubling the 6-foot-9 center, Tshiebwe scored just one field goal in the final 12:42. And Kentucky’s inability to make outside shots did nothing to make Brey pay for the strategy.
Meanwhile, UK’s 5-foot-9 point guard was on the bench down the stretch. Notre Dame freshman guard Blake Wesley — who hit the game’s biggest shot with 11 seconds left for a 64-62 Irish lead — let it slip during the postgame press conference that after watching film he could see that Wheeler “couldn’t shoot.” Thus, the Irish backed off UK’s guard, which limited his penetration. The Georgia transfer was limited to a season-low two assists. He also missed all five of his shots.
“All he had to do was make two of those elbow jumpers and the game would have been different,” Calipari said. “I’ve got to figure (it) out.”
So now the coach knows something about his team he didn’t know from that long line of easy victories. That’s a good thing. After all, lessons learned now hopefully lead to significant wins down the road. Right now, however, the Cats are 0-1.