March 8, 2015
As University of Notre Dame men's basketball player Bonzie Colson grasped the basketball in the blocks, Clemson's defense closed in on him during Saturday's Atlantic Coast Conference game at Purcell Pavilion.
That's when Fighting Irish senior captain Pat Connaughton took advantage of a clear path to the hoop from the opposite side.
Connaughton took a few steps and then launched, soaring to take a bounce pass for a slam dunk that gave the Irish a 69-54 lead with 7:24 left. It was a knockout punch that cleared the way for an 81-67 victory by the Irish in their regular-season finale. Connaughton and fellow senior Jerian Grant have helped the Irish soar this season.
Grant finished Saturday's game with 19 points and eight assists, and Connaughton had seven points.
Notre Dame finished the regular season with a 26-5 record and a 14-4 ACC mark.
Coach Mike Brey's Irish head to the ACC Tournament in Greensboro, North Carolina, as the No. 3 seed. The Irish earned a double bye and open at 9 p.m. EDT Thursday in the quarterfinals. Notre Dame will face one of three possible opponents, No. 6 seed Miami, No. 11 seed Wake Forest or No. 14 seed Virginia Tech.
Notre Dame accomplished a remarkable turnaround from last season when the Irish were 15-17 overall and 6-12 in the ACC. The plus-eight turnaround by the Irish is the second-best turnaround in ACC history, second only to North Carolina, which had a nine-win reversal (5-11 in 2010 to 14-2 in 2011).
Brey believes the senior leadership Grant and Connaughton provide is the most dangerous weapon in the Irish arsenal as they invade Greensboro with the goal of cutting down the nets in the storied ACC Tournament.
"Jerian and Pat helped the young guys believe, and quite honestly, they helped the coach believe, too," Brey said. "Everybody is on their heels after 6-12, but those two guys were so confident coming back this season. Starting with me, they made me feel like, the way they're moving around, they way they're talking, we do have a chance."
After a 65-60 loss to Syracuse in which the Irish shot 35 percent (17 of 49, including three of 22 from three-point range), Grant and Connaughton got the Irish back on track. The No. 11 Irish shot at a 54 percent clip in their next game, a 71-59 win at No. 14 Louisville. The Irish made it back-to-back impressive games shooting the ball.
Notre Dame hit 55 percent of its shots in the victory against Clemson, giving the Irish a strong boost of momentum heading into the ACC Tournament. The Irish are second in the nation in shooting percentage (.510).
"I'm really thrilled with how we're playing offensively as we head to Greensboro," Brey said. "I think we're at a really high level. I think offensively I feel really good about where we're at heading down there. We're healthy, our frame of mind is good and we're confident. We couldn't be going into the postseason in a better mode, so I'm thrilled where we're at as we head to Greensboro.
"They believe it's their time now in the postseason. They've certainly prepared themselves with how they've handled the regular season. They have every reason to believe. I don't think I have to work on that. I don't want to over-coach it as we head into the postseason. I want to let Jerian and Pat continue to set the tone for us."
Connaughton said Notre Dame's togetherness is a huge asset for the Irish.
"The way everyone on this team plays for each other is a big plus for us," Connaughton said. "This year, it's different because we've been able to become more mature, and personal statistics don't matter. It's all about getting wins. The uniqueness about this team is all 13 guys in this locker room can do that. You don't see that very often in college basketball in this day and age. It's something that makes this team very strong."
Junior post Zach Auguste agreed that the Irish maturity will be an important factor in the post-season.
"We're able to do constructive criticism," Auguste said. "We're able to tell each other, `Listen, this is what you're doing wrong. Step it up. Let's do it together.' All of us can take it. That's one thing that we struggled with in the past couple of years. Now, we're able to hold ourselves and each other accountable and step up and make plays. And we're really a strong team. We have each other's back, no matter what. None of us have our heads down. We know we'll be together through everything."
Notre Dame's ability to fight back from adversity also has been a key factor. The Irish have not suffered back-to-back losses all season. Each time the Irish faced a setback, they came out stronger in their next meeting. After four of the five Irish losses, Notre Dame fought back to win a tough road game.
"I think some of the losses we had along the way helped us learn and grow for the tournament," sophomore point guard Demetrius Jackson said. "I think we're more mature and mentally tougher than we've been in the past."
Brey thinks his team's toughness on the road will be another key to ACC Tournament success. Notre Dame was 7-2 this season on enemy courts.
"I was concerned going to Louisville," Brey said. "I thought we really answered the bell down there and played great on the road. The nice thing is, we've been great away from home. Everything else is away from this building now. It's not like we have to convince them we can be good on the road. We've been really good on the road."
And the road that Irish fans hope will lead to a season to remember begins in Greensboro.
-- by Curt Rallo, special correspondent