Notre Dame advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1979, and if not for a shot here or a foul there, the Irish would have beaten No. 1 Kentucky and advanced to their first Final Four in almost 40 years.
Instead, the Wildcats, who trailed for much of the second half, survived Notre Dame, 68-66, last Saturday. Aaron Harrison made two free throws in the final seconds to secure the win and overcome a spirited effort from the Irish.
“As a kid, you dream about playing in the NCAA Tournament, let alone the Elite Eight,” Irish senior Pat Connaughton said on CBS Sports Radio’s Ferrall on the Bench. “And then to go up against an undefeated team – and to be honest with you, put yourself in great position to win the game if the ball rolls a little bit of a different way – it’s something you’ll always remember.”
Connaughton didn’t have a great night from the floor – he scored eight points on 3-of-10 shooting – but he did throw down a two-handed flush that sent Irish fans into a frenzy.
“It was awesome,” Connaughton said. “To be honest, you’re not supposed to hang on the rim that long, but because of my momentum, the referees were fine because I had to hang on to the rim. So to be able to kill two birds with one stone in that and make it a little more emphatic in that type of atmosphere really made for a great play and a play that I’ll never forget.”
The Irish shot 46.4 percent from the floor against Kentucky – a great number against that defense – but just 28.6 percent from three-point range. Notre Dame held its own on the boards, finished with twice as many assists, and Zach Auguste, Steve Vasturia and Jerian Grant combined for 51 points.
But the Irish had no answer down low for Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting.
“It was a shame that Zach was in foul trouble because there was a limited amount he could do so that he didn’t foul out of the game because he was such an important piece for us,” Connaughton said. “(Towns) was 8-for-8 in the second half. If he misses one of those shots, it’s a different outcome. Something changes. So you got to give him all the credit in the world for making the shots when the pressure was on.”
Connaughton, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2014, made his professional debut with the Aberdeen IronBirds, a Class-A affiliate, last summer.
“It was a great experience,” said Connaughton, whose future is on the diamond. “I mean, you’re in the pros. Obviously it’s the minor leagues, but you’re playing (professional) baseball – and that’s something that not many people can say they did, let alone have success in, and learn from some of the best to have ever played. That’s the way professional sports are. I throughly enjoyed it and I look forward to getting back to it whenever that is.”