Kentucky-Notre Dame All-Time Series History
- Part Two -

[Link to All-Time Series Results]

Note: This is a continuation of the series history. For the early years of this series, check part one.

Game by Game Review Continued

In 1971, the series between Kentucky and Notre Dame took a dramatic turn after Johnny Dee resigned to practice law for the city of Denver and Richard "Digger" Phelps took the head coaching position at Notre Dame. Phelps was a young and idealistic coach who had a successful season at Fordham before making the move to South Bend and was looking to make a name for himself.

Gone from the previous year was Austin Carr and the Irish were showing the after effects, having a 2-5 record with their two wins coming against Valparaiso and Western Michigan. The Irish were so desperate for help they enlisted 6-foot-3 inch Willie Townsend from the football team to play the post against opponents who were at least half a foot taller than himself. Kentucky sported a 5-2 record but was so banged up that they too had to dip into the football program, having brought on two players, Elmore Stephens and Darryl Bishop to provide depth. The Notre Dame game was the first one these two players would appear in.

Despite those issues, Kentucky was able to run away with the game, going on a 17-2 scoring spree over a six-minute period in the first half to break the game wide open. At one point the Wildcats held a 31-point lead. The Irish did go into a press and made the margin more respectable in the second half but it was too little, too late. Tom Parker led Kentucky scorers with 30 points while Gary Novak paced the Irish with 25.

Here's an excerpt from Phelps' and Pat Scanlon's book (Digger Phelps and Notre Dame Basketball):

[Boxscore] - 1971-72

The following year, the new face as head coach was on the Kentucky sidelines. Joe B. Hall was promoted after Rupp was forcibly retired after an amazing 41 seasons. Hall believed in a power game and in order to accomplish this, had instituted a strength and conditioning program, the likes of which had never been seen previously in college basketball. This emphasis naturally led to more physical and rugged games, a trademark of many of Hall's teams.

The Irish entered the game in 1972 with an anemic 1-5 record, however the game was close throughout and the final margin was only 2 points, with the Wildcats winning 65-63. Jim Andrews led Kentucky with 23 points and 16 rebounds while Dwight Clay led the Irish with 20. Said Jimmy Dan Conner about the game, "We worked very hard all week, everybody felt real good about it, and we did some things we wanted to do. Maybe we just won by two points, but Notre Dame is better than any 1-6 team I've ever seen."

[Boxscore] - 1972-73

Adrian Dantley
After a disastrous 1971-72 season which saw Phelps post a 6-20 record and a slow start to the 1972-73 season, the Irish were able to regroup and eventually get to the finals of the 1973 NIT. By the start of the 1973-74 season, Notre Dame was finally returning back to becoming a national power. Joining Gary Novak, Gary Brokaw and John Shumate on that team was a 6-5 freshman out of Maryland's famed DeMatha H.S., Adrian Dantley.

Notre Dame extended an 18-15 first half lead to ten points, 27-17 in a little under two minutes to distance themselves from the Wildcats. The inside power of Shumate and Dantley was too much as the Wildcats were dominated on the boards, 40-24. In addition, the Irish guards in Dwight Clay and Gary Brokaw were able to solve Kentucky's full-court press to set up easy baskets. "We penetrated and got the ball to John Shumate and (Adrian) Dantley. We handled it (UK's press) pretty good. Oh, it bothered us a little right near the end, but we were up on them and didn't concentrate quite as much." said Clay.

In the end, Notre Dame outshot Kentucky 58 to 49 percent and scored a 94-79 victory, largest Notre Dame margin in the series since 1936. Shumate led the Irish with 25 points, followed by 22 each from Dantley and Brokaw. Kevin Grevey paced the losers with 25 points, followed by 24 points from Jimmy Dan Conner. Indiana native Mike Flynn was impressed with Notre Dame, "They're good, they really are. Maybe not the toughest, but one of the toughest. I'd rank them up there with North Carolina. They deserve to be second or third. I think they'll give UCLA a good game."

Flynn's words turned out to be prophetic as Notre Dame did give UCLA a good game when they played later that year in South Bend. So good, in fact, that Notre Dame won the game over the Bruins, which shattered UCLA's 88-game winning streak at the time.

[Boxscore] - 1973-74

Kevin Grevey shoots over an Irish defender
The following year saw Notre Dame come back down to earth, as the Wildcats buried the Irish 113-96. John Shumate had left after his junior year to play professionally and in the meantime Kentucky had brought along two freshman bangers, Rick Robey and Mike Phillips. Without Shumate in the middle, UK senior Bob Guyette got loose along the baseline and scored 18 points. Robey and Phillips added 14 apiece. Kevin Grevey led all UK scorers with 28 points.

Besides the inside play, Kentucky was also able to convert off their press for some easy baskets. Said Grevey "In the beginning they were beating the boards to death and we were walking it up the floor and playing their game. But the press got us five or six quick baskets and seemed to give us our spunk. We just try to trap in the corner and force a hurried pass. It might only work three or four times out of 10, but everytime is a basket. Our substitutes really picked us up."

Adrian Dantley led all scorers with 39 points and 17 rebounds but, without Shumate, Dantley was outnumbered in the paint. Said Dantley "I met Robey when he visited our campus and I saw him and Phillips play in the Captal Classic. Man, Robey is physical -- the kind of guy I'd love to play with. I would have done anything to get him to Notre Dame."

Added Notre Dame's Dwight Clay, who finished with 16 points "They're more of a team. It's not just Grevey hitting -- it's everybody. Plus the bigger people inside really help. They're a great ball club."

[Boxscore] - 1974-75
Jimmy Dan Conner meets Peter Crotty

Larry Johnson shoots over Notre Dame's Ray Martin
The game the following year proved to be a nail-biter. Kentucky shot 39.5 percent during the first half and trailed 39-32 at intermission. It could have been worse, but Notre Dame missed a free throw attempt with 8 seconds remaining and Kentucky's James Lee was able to follow his own miss to score before the buzzer sounded.

The second half saw Kentucky's shooting improve dramatically to 63 percent and they were able to squeak by with a 2-point victory, 79-77. Notre Dame's Bernard Rencher could have tied the score at the end of the game but missed a long shot as time expired. Once again, the high scoring honors went to Dantley with 28 points. Kentucky's scoring was balanced with four players scoring between 16 and 18 points.

[Boxscore] - 1975-76

Digger Phelps set his
sights on #1
One would have thought the pressure of the series would have been taking its toll on Phelps. Despite bringing some talented teams into Louisville in the past, Phelps' record stood at 1-4 and he had little control over the schedule which saw his team play in front of a hostile crowd every year. Yet he didn't show it and in fact was giving UK coach Joe Hall advice.

Before the game in 1976, Phelps and Joe Hall were attending a luncheon. Phelps chastised Coach Hall, who had suspended three players earlier in the year for a curfew violation, for taking things too seriously. According to Russell Rice's Big Blue Machine:

"It's only a game," Phelps said. "It's for fun. Eight hundred million Chinese don't care." He said Hall should loosen up on his discipline. "What had Shidler and Phillips done, anyway ?" he asked. "We have fun with our players."

But Phelps also took some broader and much more public shots at UK at the luncheon. The Kentucky football team had run into problems with recruiting violations where a recruit had reportedly been offered part interest in a race horse. Phelps extended the guilt to the basketball squad and gave Hall a black eye over the situation.

Jay Shidler chins
up Rich Branning
Perhaps due in some part to the slight, Hall had his players ready. During the pre-game talk in the locker room, Hall told his players, "Don't let'em set a moving pick. You know a moving pick down." He continued, "If you play spirited, it doesn't make a damn what they run."

Kentucky came out and blitzed an Irish team which was unbeaten and was ready to take over the #1 rating in the nation, after #1 Michigan had lost to Providence the day before. Jack "Goose" Givens hit 15 of 19 shots on his way to 30 points and Kentucky blew the game open. Down 63-36 at one point, Phelps reportedly pleaded to the referee "Are you going to keep on going or call it off ?"

Unfortunately for Phelps and the Irish, the game continued as Kentucky eventually won 102-78. Said Hall about the effort "No I didn't think it would be possible to win like this. But this was a case of total dedication and a super effort on our part. This may be the best game we've played -- I just don't know how good we really are."

What made the difference was Kentucky's defense, which helped cause 24 Irish turnovers, including a critical flurry in the first half when Notre Dame lost the ball four consecutive times while Kentucky was in the midst of hitting 9 of 10 field goals. "Our defense really opened up things for us tonight. I think our defense shocked them." said Robey. Phelps discounted Kentucky's defense as the cause of the turnovers, saying "We just threw the ball away too much. It was mostly our fault. A lot of bad passes."

Finally a dejected Phelps said after the contest "I don't have any excuses. We could have had the Pope on the bench and they'd have beaten us tonight."

[Boxscore] - 1976-77

The following year saw Kentucky at the top, being ranked #1 in the nation and undefeated through the non-conference schedule. This team sported seniors Jack Givens, Rick Robey, Mike Phillips and James Lee. But also important to the mix was a sophomore transfer point guard Kyle Macy from Peru, Indiana who seemed to hold all the parts together.

Kyle Macy surprises the Irish
Notre Dame was ranked #4 in the nation and posed a challenge to the Wildcats. Hall, however was confident in his team. He told his players before the game, "I've got to believe that the way you beat them last year, they're going to be super fired-up. They're going to come at you physically and they're going to try to intimidate you. But they're not as tough as you are. I know this; they don't have the toughness in their bellies the way you have. You can sustain yours and I don't think they can."

The game between the highly ranked squads lived up to its billing. After being down by eight points at halftime, 42-34, the Irish mounted a comeback and looked to be primed to upset the #1 team in the land. When Freshman Kelly Tripucka hit a shot with just under five minutes remaining, the Irish led by 3 points. Tripucka would end up leading the Irish with 15 points.

But thereafter, the Irish went stone cold and Macy was able to score eight straight points to put Kentucky back on top and comfortably in the lead. After a Duck Williams charge, Macy hit a 22-footer to cut the Irish lead to 1 point with 3:45 remaining. A Williams walk was answered by a Macy layup. After some missed shots by the Irish, Macy would then hit a 12-footer and finally with less than a minute remaining in the game, Macy would calmly hit two free throws to put the game out of reach.

Macy, who had been pegged in the Irish scouting report as being a weak link defensively was outstanding on both ends of the floor, would go on to receive the Bernie Shively award for most outstanding player in the game. His 18 points tied Givens for top honors for UK, followed closely by 16 points from Robey. Lamented Irish assistant coach Danny Nee about Macy, "I completely blew the scouting report on him. I didn't think he was nearly this good."

Foiled once again, Digger Phelps was heard to shout as he left the floor "You --- guys are so lucky."

[Boxscore] - 1977-78

Dwight "The Blur" Anderson scores
As with the team two years prior, the Irish were once again ranked #2 going into the annual game at Kentucky. Led by sophomore Kelly Tripucka, the team was so stacked with talent that five of the members would go on to play in the NBA. This included long-time veterans in Bill Laimbeer, Orlando Woolridge and Bill Hanzlik. That's part of the reason Digger Phelps was so frustrated to see his team gain absolutely no fan-fair during the event in Louisville.

Kentucky used the event as a means to allow its fan base in Louisville an opportunity to see the Wildcats in action without having to travel to Lexington where tickets were hard to come by. Part of the event included a morning shoot-around which was free, besides the $1 for parking, and typically attracted over 10,000 spectators for what was in effect a light one-hour practice. Phelps, who often mocked and sometimes lectured Kentucky fans on their fanaticism was disappointed to find more than 10,000 fans appear to watch the Wildcats practice, only to see them disappear (leaving behind only a few hecklers) just as soon as his #2 ranked squad took the court.

Notre Dame was confident coming into the game. Said Coach Hall, "They were really looking forward to slapping this Kentucky team down and getting revenge for the losses they have suffered before in Louisville. They came in here as confident as I've ever seen a team. And, for a while, it looked like they were going to do just what they expected to do."

However, the game once again proved elusive to Phelps and the Irish. The #13 ranked Wildcats trailed by 3 points at the half, and were in danger of losing the game late, however it was then that freshman Dwight Anderson took over the show. Nicknamed "The Blur", Anderson was one of the most naturally gifted athletes to ever step foot on the campus in Lexington. That year he was playing out of position at forward.

Trailing 61-49 with a little over 10 minutes remaining, Anderson started to make some noise to pull Kentucky within striking distance. He, Truman Claytor and another freshman, Clarence Tillman brought Kentucky back. Finally with about two minutes remaining, Anderson stole the ball and scored on a high-flying dunk to put Kentucky in front for good. The Wildcats ended up winning the game 81-76.

The game was televised before a national audience. NBC commentator Al McGuire was beside himself in praise of the super-quick guard, saying of Anderson "A new star was born tonight in college basketball !"

Anderson finished with 17 points (all in the second half), one point behind Truman Claytor. Kelly Tripucka led the Irish with 21 points.

[Boxscore] - 1978-79

1979 Program
The fame would prove fleeting for Anderson however, as the following season prior to the Notre Dame game, Anderson was caught smoking an illegal substance and he was subsequently kicked off the team. Anderson ended up transferring to Southern California and even made the NBA for a short period, however his drug problems were never conquered and this ruined what was an extremely promising basketball career.

Losing Anderson proved costly to Kentucky for the Notre Dame game, as both freshmen Sam Bowie and Dirk Minniefield were suspended for knowing about Anderson's indiscretions. So despite being ranked #2 in the nation on paper, Kentucky was vulnerable to the #8 ranked Notre Dame squad.

But Digger Phelps didn't see it that way. According to his book, Phelps addressed the suspension issue to his team before the game started.

Part of Phelps' game plan was to press the Wildcats. This proved difficult however, as senior point guard Kyle Macy handled the press easily and committed only one turnover in a game in which he played all 40 minutes. Macy ended up leading the team with 21 points and won the Bernie Shively award for the second time in his three seasons with Kentucky.

Kentucky streaked to an 18-point lead in the first half, however foul trouble was mounting by halftime and with the short bench proved alarming. By early in the second half, Fred Cowan held four personal fouls and his front-court mates Chuck Verderber and Lavon Williams each had three. The Irish cut the lead to six on numerous occasions during the second half but under the steady guidance of Macy and with unexpected help from bench players including Bo Lanter and Tom Heitz, the Wildcats held on for a 86-80 victory.

Coach Joe Hall was ecstatic after the game. "As time goes by, new records are established and this has to be the best. Under the conditions and the way our players played, I was very proud of our men. This has to be an all-time high."

Irish coach Digger Phelps was in a more somber mood. Before a post-game team dinner at Dominick Mattai's, Phelps lamented "I've been coming down here nine years now and I'm one and eight. I have a humbling experience every New Years."

[Boxscore] - 1979-80

Digger Phelps' Gives Game Ball to Billy Reed
The following year, the Wildcats were again ranked #2 in the country, however this time Digger Phelps and the #8 ranked Irish had their revenge. The Notre Dame squad was an experienced one with seniors Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge and Tracy Jackson and they played on this experience to methodically break down the younger Wildcats.

On the defensive end, the Irish switched their defenses constantly in an effort to confuse and frustrate the Wildcats. Said Wildcat center Sam Bowie, "As I recall, I didn't get the ball the first few minutes of the second half. They kept changing their defenses, and that made us adjust a lot. It might have thrown us off-guard."

On the offensive end, the Irish were patient and set up one-on-one situations with their players. This effort led directly to a number of layups and free throws for Notre Dame. Said Irish All-American Kelly Tripucka "We wanted to go one-on-one. We were looking for either back-door layups or to draw the foul."

The game was close throughout most of the contest, with the score tied at 24-all at halftime, however eventually Notre Dame was able to pull away. In the closing moments, the Irish used their forwards to go into a stall game. "We pretty much buried our guards," Phelps said. "We let our three forwards play their three forwards." Bowie, saddled with 4 fouls, was helpless to stop the inevitable and the Irish went on to score the 67-61 upset victory.

For only the second time in 10 tries against UK, Phelps was happy. "This is a little slice of heaven." he exclaimed.

After the contest was over, Phelps apparently had more than one score to settle as he went over to press row and berated sports columnist Billy Reed who had earlier questioned Phelps' coaching ability. Shaking his finger at the scribe, Phelps yelled "This one was for you -- for YOU! Don't ever say again that I can't coach." Later in one of his columns, Reed had the temerity to suggest that if he had won the game for the Irish, he at least deserved the game ball. Sure enough, soon after the article was published a package arrived from South Bend with a worn-out basketball with the inscription Notre Dame 67, UK 61 on it.

[Boxscore] - 1980-81

Shively Memorial Plaque
(Presented by the University of Notre Dame in memory of the late UK Athletic Director Bernie Shively, to the Most Valuable Player in the Kentucky-Notre Dame game.)
YearPlayer
(University)
1981
Melvin Turpin (UK)
John Paxson (ND)
1980
Kelly Tripucka (ND)
1979
Kyle Macy (UK)
1978
Dwight Anderson (UK)
1977
Kyle Macy (UK)
1976
Jack Givens (UK)
1975
Truman Claytor (UK)
Adrian Dantley (ND)
1974
Larry Johnson (UK)
1973
John Shumate (ND)
1972
Jim Andrews (UK)
1971
Tom Parker (UK)
1970
Austin Carr (ND)
1969
Mike Pratt (UK)
1968
Phil Argento (UK)
1967
Mike Casey (UK)

The Stall-Ball Game Program
The following year saw Notre Dame unranked and huge underdogs to the Wildcats, who once again were ranked #2 in the nation. The only experienced player on the Irish squad was John Paxson. Despite this, the game was perhaps Phelps' greatest coaching job in the entire series history. This came in a game which would be the last staged in Louisville on the series contract inherited by Phelps when he arrived at South Bend.

After opening the game with a Melvin Turpin dunk off a Dirk Minniefield lob pass, the Wildcats were shocked to see Notre Dame go into a stall. It would be seven minutes before the Irish would even take a shot from the field, and this tactic was maintained throughout most of the game. The halftime score was Kentucky 18, Notre Dame 12.

When asked about the stall tactic, Phelps responded "I decided to play a slowdown game against Kentucky after we lost to Murray State and Northern Illinois. We have to crawl before we can walk." The Wildcats were less amused, "That's not basketball," complained Kentucky forward Derrick Hord after the game.

With the score tied at 23 all with over a minute left, the Wildcats decided to go into a stall of their own to take a final shot. However Hord was trapped along the sideline and a shot was not taken before time expired.

The overtime saw Kentucky's Hord and guard Jim Master hit all their free throws to put the Wildcats on top. In the closing seconds, Minniefield grabbed the ball after a Paxson miss and streaked in for a game-capping dunk which resulted in the final margin, 34-28.

After the game, Phelps addressed the feelings of the upset crowd. "I can understand the fans wanting to see a show. But we played to win. It was a great game. It was fun."

[Boxscore] - 1981-82

The Kentucky Fried Chicken Game Program
After 20 years of having the series staged in "neutral" Louisville, the final game of the series saw the game moved back to South Bend for the first time since 1950. No longer were the games played in the Old Fieldhouse which Rupp despised, Notre Dame's home court was now the Joyce Athletic Center which had acquired its own imposing tradition against visiting teams.

To prepare for the Wildcats' arrival, the school newspaper asked the students to put away their books and support the Irish by helping "Digger Phelps play Colonel Sanders." Eight thousands hats with the Colonel's likeness were passed out to the crowd. They were donated by the Kentucky Fried Chicken headquarters in Louisville, approved by an advertising executive who was a University of Louisville fan.

However, despite the electricity and history which disfavored Kentucky in South Bend, apparently Phelps' dismal record against UK proved a greater force and the Wildcats scored a 58-45 victory.

This time, the stall tactic backfired on Phelps and the Irish. With six minutes remaining in the first half and Notre Dame down by one point, Phelps opted to go to a stall. Instead of gaining favor from the Notre Dame fans, the crowd began to boo the strategy and Kentucky was able to push ahead 24-19 at the half.

Kentucky built on its halftime lead by scoring on its first five possessions of the second half and put the game out of reach, effectively taking the crowd out of the game. Said UK guard (and Indiana native) Jim Master about Notre Dame's home floor, "This was a different type of game for here. It was a veteran team against an inexperienced team. We're such an experienced team the crowd wasn't much of a factor."

Noted another Kentucky guard, Dirk Minniefield: "This is it, this is the game I've waited for my entire college career. I always used to see UCLA come in here on television and it looked like so much fun. This was my first time here and my last and I wanted it to be good. When we have hostile crowds like this . . . I like it. I had to laugh at the toilet paper. I was mad at first, but I understand. They just didn't want to see their team lose."

Derrick Hord led all scorers with 18 points on 7 of 8 shooting from the field. Senior John Paxson led the Irish with 16 points.

[Boxscore] - 1982-83

David Rivers
After the game in South Bend, the series was cancelled, however it was renewed a number of years later in 1988. The first game of the series was played once again in Freedom Hall, however instead of playing near New Years, the game was played part-way through Kentucky's SEC conference regular season.

The time of year wasn't the only change to the series. Joe Hall had retired in 1985 and was replaced by former Arkansas coach Eddie Sutton. The #9 ranked UK squad was a team in flux, as Sutton's new recruits (such as Rex Chapman, Eric Manuel and LeRon Ellis) were still blending in with established veterans from Hall's teams (Winston Bennett, Ed Davender etc.)

The Irish were unranked but sported an All-American caliber player in point-guard David Rivers. Rivers was able to control games to such an extent that UK knew they had their hands full, and concentrated their efforts on controlling him. This task fell on the shoulders of senior point guard Ed Davender and the lankier sophomore phenom Rex Chapman. The pair traded off guarding Rivers and their efforts were able to hold him in check for most of the game, although Rivers did score 21 points, three shy of his season average at the time. Said Rivers, "I never got into the groove. I don't think I played anywhere near my potential." Said Davender about Chapman's defensive job on Rivers. "Rex played him really well. He held him to 21. Some people can't hold him to 30. Rex probably showed another side of his game."

The difference in the game was the long-anticipated offensive outburst by freshman center LeRon Ellis, who earned the starting assignment over senior Richard Madison. Ellis scored 14 points to go along with six rebounds and five steals. Fellow freshman Eric Manuel added 8 points and 4 assists. Notre Dame was surprised by the contributions of the UK freshmen. Said Irish center Gary Voce "We were trying to give those guys the shots. We'd never seen him [Ellis] totally explode against anyone else."

Despite taking a commanding lead at the half, Notre Dame crept back in the second half and had a great chance to steal the game in the final minutes. However, with the Irish trailing by two points, 56-58, Rivers missed a breakaway dunk. On the next Irish play, Voce missed a five-footer. Said Digger Phelps, "It's a different game if we get those two shots. I felt if we got a lead, it'd put pressure on them. And with five or six minutes left, that's when Rivers will do the things he can do at the end of the game."

Unfortunately for Phelps, it was Chapman who controlled the end of the game as he scored 7 of his 14 points in the final few minutes. Davender led Kentucky with 23 points.

[Boxscore] - 1987-88

Big Four Classic
The following year saw the fortunes of the two programs change dramatically. Kentucky was in the midst of player defections and recruiting scandals which cast a pall over the season and effectively made Eddie Sutton a lame-duck coach. Just prior to the game, the UK student paper ran an editorial asking that Sutton submit his resignation. Notre Dame lost Rivers to graduation but still looked to have a bright future, with highly-coveted big-man recruit LaPhonso Ellis anchoring the center position for the Irish.

The setting for the game was the Big Four Classic held in the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis. The concept was one where two powers from the state of Kentucky (UK and Louisville) would meet two powers from the state of Indiana (Notre Dame and Indiana) in a doubleheader. The opponents would alternate from year to year. The year prior in the inaugural event, Kentucky had met Indiana and Louisville had faced Notre Dame.

If things couldn't have been worse for the outmanned Wildcats, at least three of their players were sick with the flu. As predicted, the game turned out to be a continuation of the nightmare for Kentucky. The Wildcats were out-rebounded 53-27 by the Irish and lost 81-65. It was the largest defeat to Notre Dame since the 21 point loss to George Keogan's squad in 1936. Said redshirt freshman John Pelphrey, "They cooked us."

LeRon Ellis, who had missed three days of practice due to sickness, led the Wildcats with 22 points, however Notre Dame's big men (LaPhonso Ellis, Keith Tower and Scott Paddock) dominated the boards and the game. Kentucky native Kevin Ellery led the Irish attack with 15 points, which included four three point field goals.

[Boxscore] - 1988-89

Notre Dame's 1990 Senior Day
The following year saw the Irish win once again match up against the hapless Wildcats. Sutton had indeed left the program, and managed to dodge any personal sanctions which nevertheless hit the program hard. The new coach at UK was Rick Pitino who had inherited a disheartened and depleted squad.

The game was held as the season home finale in South Bend where five Irish seniors were honored. Unfortunately for everyone concerned, given Kentucky's probation, the game could not be shown live on television. The game didn't mean a lot to UK other than the fact that a win would prevent the team from having consecutive non-winning seasons for the first time since 1920. The game meant a lot more, however, to the Irish, as they were coming off an inspired upset of #3-ranked Missouri and were hoping to use that momentum to gain an invitation to the NCAA Tournament. "To lose to Kentucky, which had won only once on the road, wouldn't look good to the committee," said Irish guard Joe Fredrick.

Reggie Hanson dunks
Despite the incentive, it was UK which came out looking to prove something. Kentucky forged ahead to a 37-25 lead in the first half before Notre Dame made a comeback to bring the halftime margin to 37-30 UK lead. Notre Dame played passively and didn't use their size advantage in the half, at one point going over seven minutes without taking a shot from down low.

Kentucky extended the lead to ten points at the start of the second half, but Phelps' halftime talk started to take root thereafter. LaPhonso Ellis contributed 11 of his points and 10 of his rebounds in the second half and Joe Fredrick, Elmer Bennett and Kevin Ellery all contributed to the Irish comeback, in large part through a three-point flurry late in the game. Fredrick led all scorers with 23 points, while Bennett contributed a career-high 22 for the victors.

Despite losing the season finale to DePaul in Chicago, Notre Dame did receive their invitation to the NCAA Tournament, where they promptly lost in the first round to the Virginia Cavaliers.

Kentucky wound up with a 14-14 record, but brighter things were expected. Earlier in the week, Pitino said about the season to date, "It's been a long, hard battle the second half of the season. We've played with six to seven players and it has to affect the players some. John Pelphrey's been affected. Stronger people can withstand it. It'll be easier next season with 10 players."

[Boxscore] - 1989-90

The Final Big Four Classic
The 1990-91 season found Notre Dame and Kentucky once again pitted against each other in the Big Four Classic. This was the final season of the initial four-year contract, and there were some issues concerning its renewal. Kentucky was lucky to still be in the event, given the burden their participation placed on the other teams since television coverage was limited due to probation. Digger Phelps had been upset about the hardships Kentucky's probation placed on their opposition when he complained earlier that "The TV sanctions also penalize schools like us. When we're the home team against Kentucky, we also have to lose a TV appearance." However it was ABC which was serious about dropping the Wildcats in order to avoid a television black-out of half the event. Luckily for Kentucky, the other three schools refused to go along with the plan.

Jamal Mashburn shoots
Another issue which had come up even before the first Classic tipped off was whether to expand the event to be a two-day tournament. The Indiana coaches (Bobby Knight and Phelps) were in favor of this, however the Kentucky coaches (Denny Crum and Sutton, later Pitino) were not. For Notre Dame, an expansion would recreate a big-time tournament atmosphere which would be helpful since at the time Notre Dame was still an Independent, and thus did not participate in a post-season conference tournament. For Kentucky, they already played Indiana, Louisville and Notre Dame on a yearly basis. To play a two-day tournament would lead to either a second game in the same year against one of these rivals, or potentially missing out on a matchup with one of their long-time rivals. Added to that was the fact that UK would forfeit the right to a return game in the state of Kentucky. When taken as a whole, the format wasn't appealing to UK. As it turned out, the event was never renewed. This was cemented the following year when UK met Indiana in the Hoosier Dome and the two schools discovered that they could fill the arena (and split the ticket sales) between themselves.

Early in the season, Kentucky was on the upswing, as Pitino had signed a prep phenom in Jamal Mashburn and the rest of the squad was starting to show an understanding of and confidence in the system Pitino was putting in place. The Wildcats were 2-0 and had just come off beating a tough Cincinnati team. Notre Dame was in the midst of a brutal schedule which, despite being early in the year, already saw them lose to powerhouses Arizona, Duke and Indiana.

The game, which was televised nationally, saw the Irish take a ten-point lead in the first half 38-28. This despite their senior point guard Tim Singleton leaving the game midway through the half with a back spasm. However in the final two minutes of the half, Kentucky closed the lead on three-point shooting and an improbable inside shot by UK guard Richie Farmer over Irish center LaPhonso Ellis. The Wildcats returned to the locker-room during intermission only down two points, 40-38.

The second half saw more of the same as the Wildcats' pressure and three-point shooting started to pay dividends. Kentucky shot five of eight three point attempts in the second half and took control of the game with about 15 minutes remaining. When the Irish switched back to a man-to-man from their zone in order to address the three-point threat, UK point guard Sean Woods was able to break down the Irish defense late in the game. Woods scored eight points in the final eight minutes of the game and Kentucky went on to a 98-90 victory.

Six Kentucky players scored double-figures in the game while Notre Dame had five players hit double digits. The Irish were led by LaPhonso Ellis with 21 points.

[Boxscore] - 1990-91

The Irish finished with a 12-20 record and saw Richard "Digger" Phelps hang up the clipboard for other opportunities. He ended his Notre Dame career with a 393-197 record, however he was only 4-12 against the Big Blue. Many years later, when asked in a chat session about his woeful record against Kentucky, Phelps lamented the contract which forced most of the games to be played in Louisville, but then boasted that "Once we played at South Bend as well as Indianapolis. We got our wins." While it is true Notre Dame went 2-2 under Phelps outside of Louisville, what he failed to mention was that the two Irish victories came against two of the weakest Kentucky teams in UK's modern history.

Continue on to Part 3 "A New Era"


Please note that the following reference materials were consulted for the above. 1.) Lexington Herald 2.) Louisville Courier Journal 3.) Chicago Tribune 4.) Big Blue Machine by Russell Rice 5.) The Winning Tradition by Bert Nelli 6.) The Rupp Years by Tev Laudeman 7.) The Notre Dame Basketball Media Guide and 8.) the official Notre Dame Athletics website among others. I'd also like to thank Dr. Jeffrey Neil Burch for locating many of the quotes found in this page.

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Page written by Jon Scott. Please with any corrections or additional information.
Last Updated November 4, 2012