Sitting at 8-3 in their non-conference schedule, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish headed into their December 21st bout against the 12-0 Ohio St. Buckeyes needing to score the upset to stay firmly on the right side of the bubble before embarking on their first ACC conference season. And through 39 minutes, the Irish answered the bell and then some, sporting an eight-point lead with 58 seconds left.
Then it all unraveled. And then some.
Eric Atkins had already fouled out, leaving Notre Dame without its best counter to the Buckeyes' full court pressure. As a result, the Irish turned it over on two straight possessions in the backcourt, one by freshman Demetrius Jackson, then by Jerian Grant on an inbound play, handing Ohio State a six-point run in less than twenty seconds.
Still, the freshman Jackson coolly knocked down two free throws in the suddenly heated Madison Square Garden atmosphere, pushing the Irish lead to four with under forty seconds to play. But it was one step forward, two steps back, as junior captain Pat Connaughton inexplicably fouled Lenzelle Smith on a three-point attempt, reversing a defensive rebound and potential trip to the line to extend the lead to six into a slim one-point margin.
Everyone could see what was coming from there. Freshman Steve Vasturia missed the front end of his one-and-one, and Smith made an easy lay-up on the ensuing possession, giving Ohio State a lead they would not relinquish. In 42 seconds, an eight-point Irish advantage evaporated, and the Buckeyes were in the driver's seat. A Jerian Grant turnover merely sealed Notre Dame's inevitable fate.
As devastating a loss as it was, the news that came down afterwards changed the Irish fortunes for the remainder of the season. Leading scorer and preseason ACC 1st-teamer Jerian Grant was out for the remainder of the season due to academics.
Irish fans were blindsided by the news, not realizing that the last-minute embarrassment against Ohio State would only be the second-worst defeat of the weekend for Notre Dame. It was painful and confusing for fans, as it was not even clear what he had done to earn the suspension. Most (like me) were worried that the likelihood of his return for a fifth year had evaporated. And more than anything, few could fathom then just how miniscule Notre Dame's tournament hopes were without Grant, a reality of which we are all now painfully aware.
Not many teams can withstand the loss of their leading scorer, especially one that had tallied 19 points (and 6 assists) per game through 12 games. As enigmatic as Grant had been through 2 and a half years in an Irish uniform, it was hard (and even harder now) to argue his importance to Notre Dame's success.
We can argue still about Notre Dame's prospects during ACC season with or without Grant. The Irish were still easily a top 68 team, at least according to KenPom's rankings in which they were consistently in the low 50s at the time. Whether they could have pushed into the top 40 or so to earn an at-large tournament bid is certainly up for debate.
It is certainly not a stretch to imagine that many of those close losses throughout conference season, especially on the road where turning to a veteran scorer when all else is failing is vitally important, could have easily turned into victories with Jerian Grant on the court. Perhaps his loss had a difficult-to-assess effect on the team's morale that just deflated them for the better part of the remaining three months.
I think we can all agree that the Irish should not have turned in the paltry 6-12 ACC effort that they ended up with, even without Grant, and there is plenty of blame to go around for that. We can also agree that Grant would not have been a cure-all for Notre Dame's ills, namely the poor interior defense and rebounding.
We will truly never know how big of an impact losing Jerian Grant had on the forgettable 2013-2014 season for the Fighting Irish. But we do know that in the blink of an eye, Notre Dame went from asserting themselves as easily a tournament-quality team with a major, neutral site win against a top-five opponent to losing not just an embarrassing game but also their best player for the season. In an utterly depressing basketball season, that December weekend was undoubtedly the turning point for the suddenly fight-less Irish.