Grant, Connaughton close out careers
Brian Hartnett | Sunday, March 29, 2015
CLEVELAND — Trailing Kentucky by two points with six seconds remaining in Saturday’s Midwest regional final at Quicken Loans Arena, Notre Dame gave the ball to its two seniors, guards Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton.
Just as he had done so often, Connaughton inbounded the ball to Grant. Just as he had done so often, Grant rushed down the court to set up a corner 3-point attempt.
Unlike so many other times this season, Grant’s shot did not go in, flying over the hoop as time expired in No. 3 seed Notre Dame’s 68-66 loss to No. 1 seed Kentucky (38-0).
On what would end up being the final play of their college careers, Notre Dame’s two most experienced players were in position to topple the only undefeated team left in the nation.
“We gave the ball to our best player and let him try to make a play,” Connaughton said. “To be honest with you, I was right under the basket to try and get the rebound. It looked pretty close to going in.”
Connaughton and Grant didn’t add an Elite Eight victory to their respective resumes. But the resumes of the two-man senior class have a list of highlights — 120 consecutive starts for Connaughton, a spot on the USBWA All-American team for Grant, 32 victories this season, an ACC tournament championship and what Connaughton described as the emergence of the brand of Notre Dame basketball.
“[Notre Dame basketball] is a winning culture,” Connaughton said. “I think the most important thing for me was to get wins and share wins with the 13 guys in this locker room. For that, I’m proud of them.”
On the court, the Irish have developed a skillset that differentiates them from many other programs in the country, Connaughton said.
“It’s toughness, it’s competitiveness, it’s all those intangibles that so many people may undervalue in today’s day and age of college basketball,” he said of his team’s strengths. “There’s those one-and-dones, those guys that are phenomenal basketball players, and I don’t want to take anything away from them. Obviously, that works, but it’s fun to be a true team, to go out there and be with guys for four years and lay it all out on the line with them night in and night out for an entire college career.”
Few Notre Dame players have exemplified such intangibles as Connaughton has, according to Irish sophomore guard Steve Vasturia. The 6-foot-5 Connaughton finished the season as Notre Dame’s leading rebounder and shot blocker and snagged nine rebounds in the loss to the Wildcats.
“He’s one of the toughest kids around,” Vasturia said of Connaughton. “For him to rebound the way he does at his size is extremely impressive. He’s probably one of the best rebounders in the country.”
Grant, who added 15 points and six assists Saturday night, finished the season as Notre Dame’s leader in points per game, assists per game and steals. Grant’s passing ability helped open up opportunities for Notre Dame’s other players, added Vasturia, who finished with 16 points against Kentucky.
“Everything he does on the court makes it easier for everyone else,” Vasturia said of Grant. “He’s able to create for everyone, he’s able to score, he’s able to defend.”
Beyond their skills on the court, Grant and Connaughton have helped set the bar for future Notre Dame teams, Irish head coach Mike Brey said.
“Pat and Jerian were the ultimate role models to lead, to be fearless, to be unselfish, to set the tone for winning, to chase the team goal,” Brey said. “It was so pure, it was really pure. I was spoiled. I hope we can bottle it and keep it next season.”
After a season that included Notre Dame’s first Sweet 16 appearance since 2003 and Elite Eight appearance since 1979, Connaughton said he and Grant have passed on high standards to Notre Dame’s returning group, which includes starters Vasturia, junior forward Zach Auguste and sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson.
“Hopefully, [there is] a new legacy of us doing these things in March all the time,” he said. “The most important thing to us was winning … and these guys bought in fully. All the guys coming back next year know that it’s on them now, the assumption that we wanted to show them the path, break through, do the tough things that you have to do, and they completely bought in, and now it’s up to them to keep it going.”
While Grant said he couldn’t fully put Notre Dame’s season in perspective, he added that the Irish learned how to win again, a necessity for a program looking to rebound from a 15-17 mark last year.
“We put in so much work, and we got to show it with a lot of wins this year,” he said. “That was the most important thing — being able to put this program back on the map, getting some wins and doing something special.
“We were a couple of seconds away from a Final Four; it means everything.”