Pat Connaughton. Jerian Grant. The two graduating members of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish (26-5, 14-4) have led their team to remarkable heights this season. After suffering through one of the most difficult seasons imaginable, both on and off the court, these two took a team on their collective backs and led it to one of the best regular seasons the program has ever experienced.
On Saturday, Connaughton and Grant played their last game in South Bend, leading the Irish to a fairly easy victory over the Clemson Tigers (16-14, 8-10). It is difficult for me to even type that sentence, because these two have been more than just great basketball players, but have become incredible ambassadors of the university as well.
Overcoming adversity? Check. Prioritizing love of the game and loyalty to teammates over dollars and cents? Check. Leadership on the court and in the community? Check. Student-athletes that Irish fans everywhere can appreciate? Check.
Many of us talk a big game about what Notre Dame is really all about, but these two have truly lived it during their time in South Bend, and they've done so right in front of our eyes. Take Grant. The guy was one of the most frustrating players in the universe to watch and was the fans' favorite whipping boy his first two Marches. Then, last season, he gets suspended and faces national embarrassment whenever Notre Dame basketball gets brought up around the country.
So what did he do? He stayed in contact with his coach and teammates. Came back this summer not just in shape but with a new-found sense of leadership. He has elevated his game to a level that is unmatched by any backcourt player in the country. And he has done so without leaving behind his academics (on track to graduate), his fans (always signing autographs long after games, road or home) or his dedication to community service. That's someone we should all be proud of to call a Notre Dame man.
Grant scored 19 points and had 8 assists in his final regular season game, just above his remarkable season averages in both. Connaughton scored 7 and had 4 assists before Irish head coach Mike Brey pulled both with 2:11 to play in the game and a 20-point Notre Dame lead.
Connaughton, a guy with a career lined up and more money coming out of college than the rest of us could dream of, just could not turn his back on getting one more chance with Grant and the rest of his teammates. A guy who could not leave without obtaining his degree.
No one deserves anything at the most elite levels of athletics. Glory and achievements are earned on the court. But, as an Irish fan, I can say that these guys deserved a great season on which to go out and all the praise that they have suddenly earned coast-to-coast. No one more than they want to see this great season continue through tournament season and bring back some real postseason accomplishments to South Bend. But regardless of how this month plays out, these two will always have their place standing among the greats in Notre Dame basketball history.
Grant and Connaughton were helped out on their Senior Day by some of their more junior teammates, especially Zach Auguste, who matched Grant's 19 on 9 of 13 shooting after struggling for much of the last month or so. Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia joined Auguste in double-figures with 14 and 12, respectively.
Clemson hung in their in the first half, as Jaron Blossomgame scored 17 of his team's 31 first half points. The Irish were able to distance themselves a little late in the half, building a 7 point lead. But a back-and-forth between Blossomgame and this Irish offense was never going to end well for the Tigers, as Notre Dame cruised out to a double-digit lead early in the second and stayed there the rest of the game.
Blossomgame finished with 22 and 10 rebounds, and teammate Landry Nnoko nearly had a double-double of his own with 19 and 9.
Notre Dame had already clinched a 3rd place finish in the ACC, but with the win earn the best regular season in Mike Brey's career, finishing a half-game better than his team four seasons ago. The next time we see the Irish will be in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals, tipping off in Greensboro on Thursday night at 9:00pm.
Other Thoughts and Observations:
- The Irish have won 5 of their last 6 games since the debacle at Duke and really look on point heading into tournament season. Looking around the country, there are very few teams in as good a form as Notre Dame is right now. Let's hope that continues.
- Notre Dame will likely get Miami in the quarterfinals if seeds hold, a team that will be absolutely desperate for a big win to get on the right side of the bubble. Not ideal, but it's the ACC quarterfinals, so you can't expect an easy one no matter what.
- That Bonzie Colson putback dunk.
- Wichita State and Utah losing today already gets Notre Dame that much closer to a 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Oklahoma probably sealed theirs, however, with that win over Kansas.
- Zach Auguste had the entire arsenal working today. He will be very interesting to watch next year to see if he can put it all together more consistently when the Irish need to lean on him more.
- What an unbelievable regular season. To go from a 15-16 to 26-5 is just one of the most remarkable turnarounds I can even remember. That they have been so successful with such a fun brand of basketball offensively as their identity has just made it that much more rewarding.
- We will have full blowout coverage of the postseason here starting next week with ACC awards selections, a pitch for Grant as the ACC POY, tournament preview, complete ACC Tournament coverage especially for Irish games, Selection Sunday discussions, and a full slate of NCAA Tournament articles in the works. We've got some great coverage heading your way, so stay tuned for that.
- It's go time.