(MCT) — SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Soon as the doors opened Thursday, in they ran, devouring every last inch of the Notre Dame student section: Three guys dressed as bananas, a fleet of representatives from the No. 1 football team in the nation, the guy with the sign accusing Kentucky freshman Nerlens Noel of loving the band Nickelback.
They and the bulk of the Purcell Pavilion crowd slipped “Black Out” T-shirts over their heads and had the joint crackling. When it was done, when the Irish mouthwashed early season struggles with a 64-50 deconstruction of the defending national champions, onto the court they sprinted, conjuring the scene from last winter’s upset of No. 1 Syracuse.
It’s just that, to the Irish, one of these things was not like the other.
“I’d rather them not have stormed the court,” Irish guard Jerian Grant said. “(Syracuse) was kind of a surprise game. This year, going into it, we were expecting to win.”
Notre Dame (7-1) prepared and played like it, with No. 8 Kentucky’s youth painfully evident in its first true road test. The Irish outrebounded a bouncy, ultra-long frontline 33-27. They held the Wildcats’ leading scorers, Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress, to six points combined.
After point guard Eric Atkins carried the Irish through a sluggish start, the offense lit up, with 55.6 percent first-half shooting and 8-of-15 accuracy from 3-point range. An early season failure against St. Joseph’s in Brooklyn, N.Y., undercut what Notre Dame thought of itself. Dispatching Kentucky (4-2) reconfirmed it.
“This is the team we thought we were, this is the team we know we can be,” center Jack Cooley said after a 13-point, 11-rebound night. “We’re going to be this team going into the Big East. It was just good for everyone to know that this is who we’re going to be.”
Atkins essentially wouldn’t let it be otherwise. Shortly after that hiccup in Brooklyn, Irish coach Mike Brey pulled his junior floor leader aside during practice and asked for more aggression on offense, for Atkins to seek his own shot.
On Thursday, with his team flagging in the din, Atkins scored 11 of the Irish’s first 15 points, and five straight from him sparked a 17-4 run after which Notre Dame never trailed.
“When I hit a few early, my confidence was at a high,” said Atkins, who posted a team-high 16 points. “After that, I felt like I could do anything.”
A 10-0 second-half run opened a 20-point lead and sealed it, with Grant draining a 3-pointer, pulling out six-shooters and howling as the crowd frothed. Whatever Kentucky becomes by March, Notre Dame needed a night like this.
It also thinks no one should be surprised.
“We didn’t look at it as an upset,” Brey said. “We’re good here. We’re so confident here. It’s beautiful to watch.”