A string of second half free throws by Kelly Tripucka led the eighth-ranked Fighting Irish to a 67-61 upset tonight over previously unbeaten, second-ranked Kentucky in front of 16,834 stunned Wildcat enthusiasts.
Both teams shot 51 percent and had nine turnovers and Kentucky out-rebounded Notre Dame, 23-22. The difference was at the free throw line. oAfter not attempting a free throw in the first half, Notre Dame connected on 25 of 28 after intermission as it drove around and through the Wildcat man-to-man defense. Tripucka had nine of 10 foul shots in the last five minutes to preserve Notre Dame's sixth victory in seven outings.
The senior forward finished with 30 points, including 14 of 15 from the foul line, and was named the game's most valuable player.
Sam Bowie, Kentucky's 7-foot-4 sophomore center, paced his team with 18 points, but was in foul trouble most of the second half.
For Coach Digger Phelps, the victory was only the second over Kentucky in 10 years of this annual holiday matchup in Louisville's sold out Freedom Hall.
Irish forward Orlando Woolridge (17 points and nine rebounds) said in the locker room after the game, "Digger wanted to win this game real bad. We didn't even go home over Christmas."
Woolridge, who finished seven of seven from the foul line, added, "I was definitely pumped up for this game. I've come down here and lost three years in a row."
Phelps pretended to be casual about the victory, telling reporters he ranks his school's annual rivalry with UCLA as his No. 1 challenge. He credited the victory to his team's ability to take the ball inside against Kentucky's man-to-man.
"We thought we could post up on Bowie a lot and we did. That's what got him in foul trouble." Phelps explained.
Bowie, who didn't commit a foul in the first half, went to the bench with three midway through the second half. After returning with eight minutes left, he immediately picked up his fourth foul, forcing him out of the game again and hampering his agressiveness once he returned.
Kentucky Coach Joe B. Hall said he didn't go back to the zone in the second half. "We were behind. They would have backed it out and held the ball.
"Notre Dame pretty much controlled the game," Hall added. "Tripucka, himself, pretty much controlled the game."
Both teams played zone in the 24-24 first half. Notre Dame got balanced scoring, with Tripucka scoring 10 points and Woolridge and Tracy Jackson of Paint Branch High School getting six each. Kentucky, meanwhile, continually forced the ball inside to Bowie.
Kentucky opened the second half man-to-man with 5-foot-11 guard Dickey Beal in the lineup for defensive pressure, according to Hall. The plan backfired immediately, when 6-2 Irish guard John Paxson drove to the basket on the smaller Beal and picked up the first of a series of Wildcat fouls and Irish free throws.
By the time the half was five minutes old, Notre Dame was in the bonus despite falling behind, 38-35.
For the next several minutes, the lead seesawed before Notre Dame took a 50-47 advantage following the completion of a one-and-one by Tom Sluby, a freshman from Gonzaga.
After Bowie left the game with his fourth foul, Notre Dame built a 58-51 lead in the next three minutes.
With the absense of Bowie, Kentucky's only offensive weapon was the outside shooting of guard Dirk Minniefield. His three straight 20-foot jumpers over the Irish zone kept the Wildcats in the game.
Bowie reentered the game and cut the Kentucky deficit to 58-55 with a jumper from the corner with 4 1/2 minutes left. But then the game ending string of Tripucka's settled matters.
"Our senior carried us," Phelps said. Of Tripucka, he added, "He knows he's got to take charge."