CLEVELAND -- If 40-0 happens eight days from now, at least we know Kentucky will have truly earned it. You don't get a glitzy waltz to sports immortality; you get jackals at your ankles and the rare raging rhino charging right for your face. A formidable creature threatening to ruin the run. Kill it or be a could-have-been.
"We really had a mature vibe about us the whole time," Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. "It was a fearlessness about us."
Brey's team was Kentucky's stampeding beast on Saturday night. The Fighting Irish played if not their best game of the season, then without question their most poised. They moved Kentucky to panic, catalyzing the Cats into a state of desperation.
Wildcat players said as much afterward.
It feels good that Kentucky's still in this tournament, this beautiful and wicked bracket, because it's the most riveting story of the year in sports to this point. But the story line is significantly bolstered because of how UK has made it to college basketball's final weekend. With Kentucky 68, Notre Dame 66, we witnessed the best game of this year's tournament take place on Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena -- with the outrageous and totally plausible reality that it could well be topped next Saturday night.
A rematch from a year ago, a Final Four thriller. Let the eagerness take hold now, because that might as well be for a national championship. Most coaches and basketball minds agree: No team is better suited to beat brawny Kentucky than Bucky. So it doesn't matter how the next one or two games go for the Wildcats in Indianapolis. At the very least, if 40-0 happens, we'll look back on Saturday night's instant Elite Eight classic against No. 3 Notre Dame and know they were tested to their brink and still broke through. It's what we want to see from champions, from the greatest ever. Adversity and doubt.
"When I chose Kentucky I never knew it was going to be like this," Devin Booker said. "We're making history every day."
"I think everybody was nervous a little bit," UK's Trey Lyles said.
This one was different because it felt like Kentucky could lose. At least if this coronation is coming, everybody -- even John Calipari -- had to stare down the gorge and face the worst.
That ending seemed possible, maybe even likely, through most of the second half. UK had practically no offense outside of Karl-Anthony Towns, who put on a clinic in the paint, scoring a game-high 25 points and not missing a shot after the break. Notre Dame played its game and was up for most of the final 20 minutes.
"We emptied the tank tonight, and that's all I asked them to do before the game," Brey said, later adding, "very cruel, and it ends so fast."
Afterward, Towns, Andrew Harrison, Tyler Ulis, Willie Cauley-Stein and Booker all said the one feeling they had when the game finally hit triple zeros: relief. Not happiness, not validation, not celebration. Relief. This was an escape against a worthy would-be winner, a showcase fitting of this round or the next two after it in this tournament.
"I don't even remember what I was thinking or what I heard," Andrew Harrison said of his two foul shots that won the game with six seconds remaining.
Kentucky won with a run that UK fans will not forget. Calipari is taking this program to its fourth final four in five years (absurd) because UK made its final nine shots and four free throws in the closing 12 minutes and five seconds. Notre Dame went dry. UK froze the Irish at 66 points for the last 2:35.
Aaron Harrison's 3-pointer with 3:18 left -- Kentucky's penultimate field goal -- lifted the arena to a frenzied haze and reaffirmed a reality Calipari's harped on most of this season.
"I'll tell you, if people don't realize it, Andrew and Aaron still drive this team," Calipari said. "Willie does his thing, Karl was tremendous today, but those other two kids drive this team. Tyler comes in, Devin comes in. Those other two, they drove us last year to the final game, and they're doing the same thing this year."
Before that, Notre Dame, by damn, they forced us to believe. Brey had a moment to himself as the dramatics in his mind collided with a quiet beauty of what his team had become and what it was in the crisis moments of their season.
"About the seven-minute mark, the six-minute mark, I got them out of the huddle and was watching them talk out there," Brey said. "And going, 'My god, it's beautiful, how they're talking to each other, their relationship, their chemistry.' And I just marveled at watching it. I didn't want to mess any of it up."
The game's final play went long and wrong for Notre Dame star guard Jerian Grant, who may well be taken in the lottery three months from now. Without the benefit of a timeout left, Grant was forced to flash to the ball and then race up the floor with another likely lotto pick, Cauley-Stein, spooking him the whole way.
"I was trying to press them so they couldn't just roll the ball in," Cauley-Stein said. "Drew (Andrew Harrison) was just like, 'Willie, Willie! Stay on him! Stay on him! Stay on him! I'm like, 'I'm not letting him get it! Not letting him get it!'"
He succeeded. Cauley-Stein was Grant's 7-foot shadow for 91 feet, and then Andrew Harrison picked up help, altered Grant's shot, and Kentucky moved on. Lyles was there for good measure. It's a fitting six-second short film to how Kentucky will not let you win.
"I thought it had a chance at going in," Andrew Harrison said.
Cauley-Stein said, "I think it's fitting that we get a stop to end the game."
Absolutely. And Notre Dame couldn't have asked for much better, really.
"It was 22 (Grant) with the ball in hands," Brey said. "He got us this far, so we live with that."
The game featured 20 lead changes and 12 ties, neither team holding a bigger gap than six points. The Irish, small and savvy, managed to get 40 points in the paint -- the exact amount Kentucky compiled.
It was a beautiful and nerve-wracking game. Hard to imagine anyone plays Kentucky tougher in a loss than Notre Dame just did.
But we say "it's hard to imagine" every year.
And the tournament never fails us.
"At the end of the day, that's what sports is," outgoing Notre Dame senior Pat Connaughton said. "Up, down, back and forth. That's what sports is and why we love it as players and as fans."
Towns was reveling in joy, clutching the regional trophy in his locker afterward. He also knows his team needed a little luck to make it here. All champions do
"He could've hit that last shot and all the heroics we just did to get to that point would've been for nothing," he said.
Indianapolis, you're guaranteed to give us something spectacular. Either a repeat of UNLV in 1991, an undefeated team putting half a boot at the crown of the mountain before the shove-off -- all of Kentucky's work coming apart with dynamite -- or the greatest college basketball story in decades earning its completion.
No matter what, it will be an ending for all time, a finale we'll never forget.