CLEVELAND — Pat Connaughton stood motionless in the lane, trying to delay the inevitable. Half a court away Kentucky players rushed onto the floor, their undefeated season and a trip to the Final Four preserved by the narrowest of margins by a team that spent five months defying expectations.
First, one Notre Dame teammate came over to hug the senior forward. Then another. And another. Slowly he left the packed court. No looking back at the celebration in his wake.
"The walk off the floor is one that you'll remember for a long time," Connaughton said.
Odds the Irish and their captain will remember the 40 minutes that preceded it, too.
Notre Dame's thrilling and emotional run through March ended when Jerian Grant's double-clutch 3-pointer at the buzzer went long in a 68-66 loss to unbeaten — but maybe not unbeatable — Kentucky in the Midwest Regional final on Saturday night. The Irish (32-6) pushed the Wildcats (38-0) to the brink before ceding control in the final minutes.
A three-week stretch that included the program's first ACC Tournament title and first regional final appearance since 1979 restored the program's luster. For 38 minutes in what amounted to a road game Notre Dame did what few have done this season. The Irish hung with the Wildcats and even outplayed them for long stretches. They just didn't outscore them.
"It's tough," Grant said. "Just to be so close to making history, from doing something so special and just like that it's over."
Notre Dame led for more than half the game, but two free throws by Andrew Harrison with 6 seconds to go put Kentucky ahead. Grant took the inbounds and raced down the left side but his sixth and final 3-point attempt of the game was nowhere close.
"I wanted to pull up but I felt I needed to create some space," Grant said. "I didn't see the guy behind me. It really got contested and the shot didn't go in."
Zach Auguste led the Irish with 20 points, most of them dunks or layups as he held his own against Kentucky's intimidating front line. Steve Vasturia added 16 points and Grant had 15 but Notre Dame finished one step shy of its first trip to the national semifinals since 1978.
Yet it can hardly be considered a failure. The Irish went 15-17 last season but soared in arguably the nation's toughest conference. They beat Duke and North Carolina on consecutive days a couple of miles from Tobacco Road to win the ACC Tournament and survived two narrow wins last week to advance to the Sweet 16 for just the second time under coach Mike Brey. The celebration was muted by the death of Brey's mother, who passed away suddenly hours before a round of 32 overtime victory against in-state rival Butler.
Brey told his players about his mother's relentless competitiveness, a quality he instilled in his resilient team. Notre Dame blew away Wichita State in the second half on Thursday and hardly cowered at the sight of the Wildcats, coming off a 39-point evisceration of West Virginia.
"We were very confident that this game was going to be close and down to the wire," Connaughton said.
He was more right than he knew. Throwing himself against players 6 or 7 inches taller, Connaughton had a game-high nine rebounds. Notre Dame's highly efficient offense controlled the tempo and consistently outsmarted and outmaneuvered the Wildcats with a series of backdoor cuts or dives to the rim. The Irish — with just one regular over 6-foot-5 — scored 40 points in the lane, the same as Kentucky and its endless stream of McDonald's All-Americans.
Vasturia drilled a 3-pointer to put the Irish up 59-53 with 6:14 to go. The Wildcats, trying to become the first team in 39 years to go undefeated, responded. Harrison hit a deep 3-pointer to put Kentucky ahead 64-63. Grant then made a 22-footer with the shot clock expiring to put Notre Dame back in front by two.
Only then did the Irish wobble. Notre Dame's last three possessions ended with a missed jumper by Grant, its first turnover of the half on a shot clock violation and Grant's heave at the horn.
"We felt we played well enough to win, that's the most important thing," Grant said. "We put ourselves in position to get a win. It didn't happen because they made a couple more plays than we did."
Notre Dame: The last time the Fighting Irish played in a regional final (March 18, 1979) they lost to eventual national champion Michigan State, led by Magic Johnson. ... Grant is the only player in school history with at least 1,700 points, 600 assists, 150 steals and 30 blocks.
Kentucky: The Wildcats have made a 3-pointer in 938 consecutive games, the nation's second-longest streak. UNLV has dropped a 3 in 941 straight.
Notre Dame: Loses Grant and Connaughton but returns starters Auguste, Vasturia and point guard Demetrius Jackson.
Kentucky: Plays Wisconsin in the Final Four on Saturday.