Notre Dame, which had won its first eight games, including a double-overtime triumph over Georgia last month, gave the Wildcats a scare in the first half and led by 11 points before Kentucky used a 13-2 run to close the first half and tied the score at 40-40 at the break.
The hosts didn’t have an answer for Notre Dame guard Ben Hansbrough in the opening half. The Mississippi State transfer connected on five shots from long range and scored 19 points. Hansbrough missed just three field goal attempts in the first half.
“He was incredible,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said afterward. “He took one almost at half-court and I thought it was in and so did he.”
Thanks in part to Kentucky’s performance on defense, the luck of the Irish changed in the second half.
Kentucky used a box in one gimmick scheme on Hansbrough that created spacing between the two teams. The defensive tactic not only frustrated Hansbrough, but created more issues for the Irish, who shot just 20 percent from the field and tallied just 18 points in the second half.
The three-point shots that were falling in the first half were non-existent in the final frame. Notre Dame made just one long-range field goal in second half on 13 attempts after draining five — all by Hansbrough — in the previous half.
“It was almost like a box in one,” Calipari said of his team’s defensive approach during the final 20 minutes. “(When he came) off a screen, we (switched) out and (made) it very hard for him, but they didn’t go away, even at the end.”
As for Hansbrough, he missed all five of his shots from the field in the second half and scored just two points, both of which came from the free-throw line.
“They really took Ben away in the second half,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “They face-guarded him and it’s probably the most size we’ve played against defensively in length and intensity.”
Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, who led all scorers with 27 points and 17 rebounds, said the Cats simply wanted to “concentrate” and be aware of Hansbrough’s every move in the second half.
“They made us rise up to their intensity (level) and play harder,” Jones said. “We had to get control of the game and come back.”
It was the team’s defense that paved the way.