Notre Dame Visits Howard on MLK Day in a Nationally Televised Thriller
By: Ethan Hennessy
“I’ve been hearing the word historic thrown around this game, but I just want to give my big brother and a guy who has been a little bit of a father figure a lot of credit because 99% of the Power 5 universities will not come in here to play us a Burr Gymnasium on the campus of Howard University for this game. The character and the heart to bring his team in here to do that says a lot about him as a man, but we also looked at this as an educational experience.” – Kenneth Blakeney
Many people entered Monday afternoon’s game between Notre Dame and Howard expecting it to not be competitive. The storyline was supposed to be a feel-good story of how Howard gets a big home game against Notre Dame nationally televised to millions of people on FOX on MLK Day but gets blown out and overpowered against the Irish. The first part of that narrative was correct, but the second couldn’t be more wrong. Many eyes were on the game as many of FOX college basketball’s studio analysts and commentators such as Jim Jackson and Steve Lavin were in the building. Dozens of media were covering the game. There were so many of us in fact that we were seated in sections of the seating bowl with the fans.
“We have been in some tough road atmospheres at Pittsburgh, Georgia Tech, Virgina Tech. This one was better. This one was harder because you just felt they were on top of you the whole time… This was as good as any ACC atmosphere where it’s hard to win on the road.” – Mike Brey
Howard jumped out to a 4-0 lead. Notre Dame did take control after that. The Irish were the out rebounding Howard and thanks to some steals and transition buckets were able to get to offense going, but Howard’s hot shooting kept them in the game. After a buzzer-beating baseline jumper, Howard only trailed the Irish by one at halftime.
“It was a great atmosphere and certainly a great message for our university to be on an HBCU campus on MLK Day, very powerful” – Mike Brey
In the second half, Howard started off with a 6-0 to take the lead. Burr Gymnasium was rocking. Notre Dame collected themselves and made a run of their own going up 12. Between the under 12 and under eight timeouts it looked like Notre Dame was on the precipice of putting the game out of reach, but Howard started getting shots and making stops. Irish coach Mike Brey said after the game “Even when we got up 12 I thought we’re going to have to escape. Kenny Blakeney prepares that team so well, and he knows us so well… I’m just thrilled we were able to get out of here alive.” With every basket, Burr grew louder. In the final minute, Howard stole the ball and tossed up an alley-oop to close the gap to one. Notre Dame responded with a basket. Howard had a chance to force overtime with a three, but the shot was off.
After the game, both coaches had a lot to say. I asked Notre Dame coach Mike Brey with so few high majors playing at mid-majors if he had a message to other high major coaches. He responded: “Yeah, we should do this more. And I know it was painful today. Every major coach watched today and said that’s why I’m not going to go play on a mid-major floor or on an HBCU campus, we owe it! We gotta do it. I’m open to coming back to it may be there is somebody else we entertain. I think we should do it more.”
Brey also talked about his relationship with Howard coach Kenneth Blakeney: “Kenny is like a son to me. I recruited him at Duke when I was an assistant. I’m just so darn proud of him, & I told him that after the game. I’m really proud of him, and he is the kind of guy that if my son was with Kenny Blakeney every day I know he would be in great hands. He is a true educator. Howard kids are lucky to have a leader like Kenny”.
Blakeney had great insight on how games like this could be used as educational experiences, but only if college coaches are willing to look at it through the right lens. “I would love for teams to want to be a part of this. I always talk about it as an educational experience. For this particular weekend teams should come in here, they should take their teams to the African American museum, they should take their teams to the Martin Luther King Museum, they should come on our campus and experience what this history, culture, and tradition is like because a lot of their student-athletes have never been at a place like this, and give them a more well-rounded perspective and a more well-rounded experience as a student. If college coaches are looking at themselves as educators they will buy into that. If they are looking at themselves as basketball coaches then they will never want to come here and have this kind of experience for their students.”
A reporter said to Blakeney postgame “Listening to you talk and listening to Coach Brey speak about you and how you are an educator and you guys have similar roots. He said the same thing you said that it is like a father figure relationship. Talk about him and you and your relationship, and what went into getting this game scheduled for a second year after last year it got canceled?” Blakeney responded with the most genuine answer I have ever heard from a coach saying “You’re gonna make me cry, man. I’m being serious. I love that dude.” as he began to tear up. “That’s it. I wouldn’t be here without him. That’s all, I love him. He’s been one of the men that has been constant in my life since I was 14. He has always been there in good and bad times. He has been consistent the same.”