SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The Kentucky Wildcats played in a true road environment for the first time this season here Thursday night and suffered a complete meltdown, losing to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 64-50, at the smallish but festive Purcell Pavilion.
Notre Dame improved to 6-1, while Kentucky fell to 4-2 heading into a 12:30 p.m. game Saturday at home against Baylor.
“We just got out-competed from start to finish,” said UK graduate student Julius Mays, who was the only Wildcat who did not look like a deer in headlights, finishing with a team-high 16 points. “We didn’t play hard. They competed harder than we did, and they wanted it more than we did.”
“I kind of expected that we wouldn’t play (well),” UK coach John Calipari said. “But I was disappointed that we didn’t compete. They beat us to balls. They beat us around the basket. We just didn’t compete. We didn’t execute. We didn’t play together. There were a lot of things that went out the window.”
All that said, this game did not start off so badly for the visitors. The Wildcats jumped to a 13-10 lead the first six minutes of the game. But then freshman forward Alex Poythress picked up his second foul and did not play the final 14:33 of the half.
The Irish started to press the ball inside, and clogged up the lane on the defensive end and quickly took momentum that they never surrendered.
Notre Dame led 36-25 at halftime, and stretched the margin out to 20 points in the middle stages of the second half.
When the Irish didn’t get the ball inside for easy baskets, they tossed it out to the corners and consistently knocked down three pointers.
Notre Dame was 24 of 50 from the field (it seemed better than that, didn’t it?), including eight of 15 from three-point range.
“They hit big threes with the shot clock winding down,” Mays said of the Irish.
Perhaps most telling, especially when looking at Kentucky’s lack of effort, was the play on the boards. The Irish out-rebounded the Wildcats, 33-27, even though Notre Dame had four guards on the court a lot of the time.
“I was a little surprised,” said Notre Dame senior forward Jack Cooley, who scored 13 points and pulled down 11 rebounds. “Rebounding was something we were emphasizing all week going into this game, and so it was just us taking care of business really. I am really proud of the way we played in terms of the boards. Them having the size and athleticism that they have, the way we dominated was great to see.”
“We had guys who would play defense for 25 seconds and then foul,” Calipari said. “We would play for 25 seconds and then lose a man. We would play for 25 seconds and then two guys would cross and talk to each other, and the guy shoots a three.”
And on the offensive end...
“We weren’t looking for each other,” Calipari said. “Whoever had it was trying to score, and you can’t really play that way.”
“We just weren’t doing like we usually do,” Mays said. “We weren’t trying to find everybody.
“I think we came out a little shell-shocked, and we started to play their game, which is slow down...half court. We’re more of an up tempo team. And once we got in their game, obviously, they are better at it.”
Junior guard Eric Atkins led Notre Dame in scoring with 16 points. Junior guard Jerian Grant added 13 points and six assists.
Freshman center Nerlens Noel added 10 points and seven rebounds for Kentucky.
Notre Dame held UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin to just three points, though Goodwin did muster five assists.
“Archie, I think, was playing out of control for the first time,” Calipari said. “I think he had one shot hit the shot clock, didn’t he? He hadn’t played like that all year except for maybe early in practice.”
Poythress started the second half and played most of the way down the stretch, but he had a terrible game. Poythress finished with just three points and two rebounds, with three turnovers, in 23 minutes. And he wasn’t any better defensively.
“They went at Alex defensively,” Calipari said. “They said, that’s who we’re going to go at, and they went at him. I think they may have worn him out.”
And Poythress didn’t have the maturity to respond. But you can say that about all the Wildcats, with the possible exception of Mays.
Calipari indicated that the poor statistics on the Kentucky end went back to the overriding problem on this night for his young team - a lack of effort.
“My whole thing is you can play poorly and still defend and compete,” Calipari said. “In other words – two teams battle it out and Notre Dame wins. That is not what this was. This was Notre Dame throwing around Kentucky and winning by as much as they needed to win by. That’s what this game was. I’m disappointed.”
Calipari was asked if the fix for his team would be difficult to come by.
“It’s tough to coach a new team each year, that’s what is hard,” he said. “That’s just part of what we have to deal with. Every team is new, and we are just learning about our team.
“I didn’t expect us to come in here and play out of our minds, but I would hope we would have competed. I thought, against Duke, we did that. We fought like crazy. But this game, we just didn’t. We weren’t very good.”
Sophomore guard Ryan Harrow returned to game action for the Wildcats for the first time in a couple of weeks and showed the rustiness you would expect. Harrow had two points, one steal, one rebound and one turnover in nine minutes.
He did okay, Calipari said of Harrow.
That amounts to glowing praise on this night.