There was a dual-element excitement on why Jan. 19, 1974 remains the most famous day for the Notre Dame men’s program when it snapped UCLA’s NCAA-record 88-game winning streak with a 71-70 victory.
First, the Bruins had an aura of invincibility, having won seven consecutive national titles.
Second, the victory elevated unbeaten Notre Dame to No. 1 for the first time in the 36-year history of the Associated Press poll and elicited a feeling of college sports utopia. The Notre Dame football team had just won the national title 20 days earlier by defeating No. 1 Alabama, also by one point (24-23). Then, the day before the UCLA game, the Irish hockey team crushed No. 1 Michigan Tech, 7-1.
In a span of 20 days, three different Notre Dame teams defeated a top-ranked team. Thus, it was not just a win, but a unique feat never equaled to this day anywhere else.
Here is a personal opinion on the top dozen Notre Dame moments, plus one, since 1952, the year the Fighting Irish first accepted post-season bids to the NCAA Tournament. They are based on impact nationally, what the win meant to the program at the time, posterity and sheer game excitement.
1. Jan. 19, 1974: Notre Dame 71, UCLA 70
It’s not just the win, but the magnitude of the situation. No. 2 Notre Dame trailed 70-59 with 3:22 left when it called a time out. No shot clock. No three-point line. The situation could have been replayed 10,000 times, and UCLA would have won 9,999 of them. On this day, though…
2&3: March 13-14, 2015: Notre Dame 74, Duke 64; Notre Dame 90, North Carolina 82
The UCLA win might be the most famous in Fighting Irish basketball annals — but the most impressive feat in program history was vanquishing Duke (that year’s national champion) and North Carolina (which would win it in 2017) on back-to-back nights on Tobacco Road to win the 2015 ACC Tournament title. Tournament MVP Jerian Grant scored 37 points in these two contests while Pat Connaughton added 29.
Versus Duke, freshman Bonzie Colson had a team high 17 points off the bench, while guard Demetrius Jackson added 15.
The following day North Carolina had an eight-point lead with 9:21 left in the game before the Irish went on a remarkable 24-2 run.
4. March, 19, 1978: Notre Dame 84, DePaul 64
Making our “final four” was this victory to advance Notre Dame to its lone Final Four appearance. Head coach Digger Phelps’ Irish were more talented and deeper— featuring eight future NBA players — than Ray Meyer’s Blue Demons, but DePaul still won the regular season meeting in overtime.
Freshman Kelly Tripucka was named the Regional MVP on a team captained by seniors Dave Batton and Don “Duck” Williams.
5. March 12, 1954: Notre Dame 65, Indiana 64
The most impressive win in Fighting Irish NCAA Tournament history, as they defeated the reigning national champs and No. 1-ranked Hoosiers, led by future Notre Dame director of athletics (1987-95) Dick Rosenthal’s 25 points and 15 rebounds. This advanced the Irish to the Elite Eight and made them the favorite to capture the national crown.
Unfortunately, the following day they had the ultimate letdown and lost to Penn State to snap a school-record 18-game winning streak, which has since not reached more than 12.
6. Jan. 23, 1971: Notre Dame 89, UCLA 82
UCLA’s 88-game winning streak began after this electrifying Irish win in which senior Austin Carr scored 46 points against the No. 1 Bruins.
Similar to three years earlier when Notre Dame on Jan. 1 ended No. 1 Texas’ 30-game winning streak in football with a 24-11 triumph, this upset of the basketball No. 1 three weeks later had the nation believing Notre Dame could win the national title to end UCLA’s run of four straight. College basketball was still in its infancy stage of marketing, and this nationally telecast game helped spring the Irish into the spotlight.
7. Feb. 9-10, 2013: Notre Dame 104, Louisville 101 (5 OT)
Impact-wise it was minimal in the regular season between two ranked teams — but it was the greatest back-and-forth contest in the now 51-year history of the Purcell Pavilion. We have two days listed because this Saturday night tip-off ended on Sunday morning after 3 hours and 36 minutes, with 16 ties and 26 lead changes.
In the longest regular season game in Big East history, Louisville took a 56-48 lead with 51 seconds left in regulation before Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant went into an out-of-body basketball experience with three treys and a basket-and-one in a span of 23 seconds left to tie the score at 60 at the end of regulation.
It would be Louisville’s final defeat of that season as it went on to capture the NCAA Tournament, while Notre Dame lost its first-round game.
8. March 5, 1977, Notre Dame 93, San Francisco 82
This wasn’t so much about defeating the 29-0 and No. 1-ranked Dons at home to secure an NCAA Tournament bid into the 32-team field, but the fact that NBC Sports named Notre Dame’s raucous student body the Game MVP.
That was unprecedented, and a reflection of how the program become one of the most appealing places for top recruits to play en route to becoming a consistent top-10 mainstay into the early 1980s. The Irish recruiting from 1971 -77 produced 11 NBA players, five of them first-round picks and another in the top 25.
9. March 26, 2015: Notre Dame 81, Wichita State 70
For the first time in 37 years, the Fighting Irish won three consecutive games in the NCAA Tournament to advance to the Elite Eight. It was also only the second time in its history it won three straight games in the NCAA Tournament. Furthermore, it built off the scintillating run to the ACC Championship 11 days earlier. The deep tourney run also helped make Mike Brey “the loosest coach in America” because only two NCAA Tournament wins in the 11 seasons from 2004-14 was no longer his albatross.
Had Notre Dame prevailed in the epic one-point loss to No. 1 and unbeaten Kentucky two days later to reach the Final Four, it might well have ranked with UCLA 1974.
10. March 26, 2016: Notre Dame 61, Wisconsin 56
For the second straight year the Irish won three straight NCAA Tournament games (only third ever), this time finishing with an 8-0 run, led by guard Demetrius Jackson, in the final 19 seconds. This came on the heels of a tip-in basket by freshman Rex Pflueger with one second left in the previous round to defeat Stephen F. Austin, 76-75.
11. Feb. 27, 1980: Notre Dame 76, DePaul 74 (2 OT)
Until the Louisville game (No. 7), this might have been the most exciting back-and-forth game in the 50-year history of the Purcell Pavilion — and one that featured an inordinate amount of NBA talent. The 26-0 and No. 1 Blue Demons were led by future No. 1 (Mark Aguirre) and No. 2 (Terry Cummings) overall picks, while the Irish had four first-round players (Kelly Tripucka, Orlando Woolridge, Bill Hanzlik and John Paxson), plus No. 25 overall selection (second round) Tracy Jackson.
Alas, just like in 2013 with Louisville, Notre Dame lost its first-round NCAA Tournament game.
12. March 8, 1970: Notre Dame 112, Ohio U. 82
It wasn’t the most competitive game, but chances are every March you will hear it brought up some way or another because of Austin Carr’s NCAA record 61-point performance that will likely never be broken.
This victory in the then 25-team field also marked the first for the Irish in 12 years.
Baker’s Dozen, Honorable Mention: Jan. 13, 1973: Notre Dame 71, Marquette 69
A personal favorite as the most underrated game of the Phelps era. A massive rebuild in his first year (1971-72), minus all five starters from the previous year, led by Carr and fellow first-round pick Collis Jones, ended with a 6-20 record. In year two the Irish began 1-6.
But on Jan. 7 the Irish upset Kansas in overtime, won at DePaul a few days later … and then ended Marquette’s 81-game winning streak. Similar to the UCLA game just over a year later, the Irish were down by 10, but dramatically rallied with an almost identical score and with a Dwight Clay corner jumper for the winning points.
This precursor conquest propelled Notre Dame back into the big time from 1973-81.