Survivor's recourse: UK shows what happens when it gets pushed to the brink

CLEVELAND – Mike Brey leaned against a wall outside the Notre Dame postgame locker room and tried to process it all. He looked exhausted. He looked emotional. He looked like he needed a nap, a beer or most preferably a couple of both.

"We. Just. Felt. We. Could. Win. The. Game," he said, each word hanging in the air, like he still wasn't sure how they hadn't, like he still couldn't wrap himself around the concept that the same loss that would likely haunt him forever might also go down as his greatest coaching achievement.

Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66 – what felt for 39:54 like one of the wildest rides March has ever seen, what could have been one of the most historic upsets of all time, instead just ended, just ended like that.

Two clutch Andrew Harrison free throws, one long desperation Jerian Grant three and the improbable ended predictably, Kentucky at 38-0, storming the court in joy, headed to the Final Four. Notre Dame could only stare on in disbelief.

"Very cruel," Brey said. "Because it ends so fast, man."

John Calipari likes to describe his waves of talent, one seemingly longer armed than the next, that he subs in as if they were hockey lines, like "tanks coming over the hill."

Notre Dame saw them coming and coming and just stood its ground.

It has six players. It has a 6-foot-5 power forward. It has two big men. It's not that Notre Dame isn't a hell of a team, because what it has is tremendous, a beautiful unit of great athletes capable of spreading a floor and slicing a defense.

Still, this was Kentucky, unbeaten and headed for destiny and loaded with future NBA talent. This was history and everyone knew it. Brey came in believing they could win. His players came in believing they could win.

Kentucky's Aaron Harrison (2) and teammates celebrate after beating Notre Dame. (USAT)
Kentucky's Aaron Harrison (2) and teammates celebrate after beating Notre Dame. (USAT)

A lot of people believe though until they walk into the Big Blue meat grinder.

That, maybe more than anything, was what swelled Brey with confidence during the game and pride even when it fell short. His big men held up. His guys weren't crushed on the boards. They found an offensive rhythm against a great defensive squad. They competed. As he walked off the court at halftime, tied at 31, he thought this was going to happen.

"We can get this," he said to himself.

They gave mighty, mighty Kentucky everything it could handle. If not for the preternatural ability of Andrew and Aaron Harrison to play their very best in the loneliest of moments, they probably would have gotten this.

It was Aaron who stuck a NBA-range three-pointer with a little over three minutes left to give Kentucky its first lead in what felt like forever, putting the Irish on its heels. It was Andrew who swished those two free throws with six seconds left to win the game.

Up in the stands, clad in blue, their mother, Marian Harrison, said she managed to watch without too much angst. She often can't handle the pressure and finds herself walking the concourse, holding a one-woman prayer session, letting the roar of the crowd serve as the soundtrack.

This time though, for whatever reason, she stayed and stood next to her husband and just watched as their boys did their thing, the way they always seem to do it in this tournament.

Aaron had a measly three points, overwhelmed at times out there, when he pulled up and drilled that three. Andrew had just five points and no field goals when, with this entire enterprise, this title-or-bust-campaign hanging in the balance, he confidently drove the lane and drew the foul with six seconds remaining. Then he hit both free throws easily.

"It's a blessing," she said with a shrug, standing amid the celebration after. "I don't know where it comes from. It always comes through in the nick of time though."

"I don't know what to say anymore," said their father, Aaron Sr. "They've been doing it a long time. It's just what they do."

At that moment Andrew came jumping by and planted a kiss on his mother's cheek and then held it as she snapped a selfie with her camera. Just another night in March.

"Aaron and Andrew still drive this team," Calipari would say later. "They drove us last year to the final game and they're doing the same this year."

Pat Connaughton (24) reacts Notre Dame lost to Kentucky on Saturday. (USAT)
Pat Connaughton (24) reacts Notre Dame lost to Kentucky on Saturday. (USAT)

And that is the ethos of Kentucky basketball, of the underlying core behind the tanks and the hill. And if there was anything that Mike Brey could take solace in, it's that. You just can't get these guys to fold. No matter how many plays the Irish made, from wild dunks to buried threes to the 6-foot-5 Pat Connaughton somehow grabbing nine rebounds amidst the tall Wildcats, UK never faded, never failed.

Sure, they have great players, impossible size, and breathtaking skill. They also have an otherworldly will to win. Just about anyone else would have taken those punches in the mouth from the Irish, seen time dwindling and pressure rising, felt the panic in the blue-clad stands, and panicked.

Kentucky just buckled up and punched back. UK scored on each of its last nine attempted shots of the game, shooting 75 percent for the second half.

It was what was needed. It was the only way to beat Notre Dame.

"We play to win," Calipari said.

And so, somehow, they won. A deep three from one brother. Two free throws from the other. Three consecutive blood-and-guts defensive stops that halted the Irish and caused it all to slip away in the final, fleeting moments.

"We made some plays down the stretch," Calipari said. "We don't make them, they're going to Indy, and we're going home."

The man going home understood all of that. He tried to prop himself up with praise for his guys, for the momentum of the program, for the fact Notre Dame had given this tournament one of those thrilling games that drag people in front televisions around America. He tried some gallows humor about getting to an Irish Pub.

"We emptied the tank tonight," Mike Brey said.

Then more came over that Kentucky hill.

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