With 7-footer Sam Bowie on the bench in a three-piece suit and with star guard Dwight Anderson looking for a new school, the University of Kentucky's No. 2-ranked basketball team yet was good enough tonight to hand No. 3 Norte Dame its first defeat, 86-80.
Now winner of 11 straight games after a season-opening loss to Duke, Kentucky used mighty rebounding and Kyle Macy's 21 points to achieve a victory so convincing that losing Coach Digger Phelps predicted an NCAA championship for the Wildcats.
"With Bowie back, they are as good as any team in the country," Phelps said after seeing his team lose for the sixth straight year in Freedom Hall, 80 miles from Kentucky's campus in Lexington.
"Considering that the Mideast Regional is in Lexington this season, on paper Kentucky should win the whole thing with the big man back."
Bowie, a freshman leading Kentucky in rebounding and third in scoring, served a one-game suspension tonight for breaking Coach Joe B. Hall's training rules. Another freshman, second-team guard Dirk Minniefield, also was benched for a night. Dwight Anderson, the team's second-leading scorer, quit school last week.
"It was just a fanstastic night from start to finish," said Hall, who was carried off the floor on the shoulders of his players to the screaming approval of most of the 16,613 paying customers.
If anyone believed Notre Dame's veteran team had an advantage over a Kentucky outfit that came to the game without three of its top seven players, that notion was dispelled in the first half when Kentucky built a 47-32 lead.
Freddie Cowan, a 6-foot-8 junior playing in Bowie's spot in the offense, scored 14 first-half points, including a spectacular dunk off a fast break that highlighted an eight-point explosion moving Kentucky from a 16-12 lead to 24-12.
Against Notre Dame customary eternal fullcourt press, the Kentuckians, if short of guards, were yet impressive. Time after time, they moved downcourt unimpeded for enough easy layups that they made 22 of 35 first-half shots, 62.9 percent. Of their 21 first-half buckets, 14 were layups or rebounds.
As effective as Kentucky was offensively, so was it on defense. Switching from a man-to-man defense to its traditionally impenetrable 1-3-1 zone, Kentucky reduced Notre Dame's sharpshooters to misfiring duds.
In their six victories this season, Notre Dame had shot over 52 percent. The Irish hit only 34.4 percent in the first half tonight.
From that 15-point halftime deficit, Notre Dame reduced Kentucky's lead to six points at 75-69 with 5 1/2 minutes to play. The Irish had come back with the good outside shooting of Rich Branning, Bill Hanzlik and Kelly Tripucka.
Then Kyle Macy, Kentucky's All-America guard, won the game.
First, Tracy Jackson missed a free throw for Notre Dame, botching a chance to out Kentucky's lead to four.
And here came Macy, a 6-2 senior guard who already has been drafted No. 1 by the Phoenix Suns. On the run through the Notre Dame press, Macy came to the free-throw line against the Irish Center, Orland Woolride, a 6-9 leaper.
Macy went for a 10-foot jump shot but had no space to shoot it over Woolridge.
"So I moved the ball to the side a little," Macy said.
And threw a sidearm jumper into the net. And was fouled on the play. He made the free throw, too. So Kentucky now led, 78-69 -- instead of the 76-72 margin that Jackson could have produced.
"We made a great run at the end," Phelps said. "But then we missed the one-and-one, we fouled Macy and then we missed a shot with no offensive rebounders under."
Well, actually, Notre Dame had a rebounder under the basket. It was Tripucka, who fouled a Kentucky man.
Kentucky scored the next four points. It was over, and now Kentucky has beaten the three major Indiana schools in a period of three weeks -- first Indiana, then Purdue, finally Notre Dame.
Irish Coach Digger Phelps said, "I've been coming down here nine years now and I'm 1-8. I have a humbling experience every New Year's."