April 14, 2015
Pat Connaughton drove past the University of Notre Dame's basketball arena, Purcell Pavilion, around midnight after a night of bowling with friends the day before the Fighting Irish men's basketball team left for Greensboro, North Carolina, and the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
Connaughton, the Irish captain, saw fellow senior Jerian Grant's car in the parking lot near the security gate, and his heart told him he had to stop.
"It was the day the ACC player of the year was announced," Connaughton said at Monday's celebration of a remarkable Notre Dame men's basketball season. "I knew why he was there."
Grant's personal goal entering the 2014-15 season had been to win the ACC player of the year award. That honor went to Duke's Jahlil Okafor.
Connaughton went to the Pit, the Irish auxiliary gym tucked away down the hall and down a flight of stairs from where fans roared to the explosive Irish attack this season.
That was where he found Grant. "I asked him, 'Are you bothered by it?'" Connaughton said about checking on Grant's emotions about the disappointing news that he was not the ACC player of the year. "He said, 'Yeah,' but the genuine phrase that came out of his mouth was, 'But I'm more concerned about our team winning an ACC Tournament championship."
A few days later Grant and the Irish went on to win the ACC Championship, Notre Dame's first conference tournament title in its storied men's basketball history. Grant carved out his legacy as the ACC Tournament MVP.
As the blue ACC Championship banner was unfurled at the end of the Irish season celebration video Monday night, it was clear that the fabric of that golden moment in Irish lore was woven on that cold March night when Connaughton looked after his teammate.
Connaughton's act of compassion and Grant's devotion to team touched the soul of a program and left a blueprint for more moments when the Irish climb ladders to cut down championship nets. The concern for a teammate by Connaughton and the commitment to team success by Grant are two of the pillars that the senior leaders from the 2014-15 campaign passed along with the mantel of leadership.
Grant's and Connaughton's lessons of leadership weren't lost on the Irish.
"It was a reflection of this whole season, the kind of players, the kind of people that Pat and Jerian are," Vasturia said of the moment at the Pit. "For players like Demetrius and me, playing under their wing allowed us to learn the way to carry ourselves, whether you're winning or losing. It was big for us to learn that. Pat and Jerian were two great examples of leaders to learn from. They'll always be there for us to talk to and ask questions."
As Notre Dame put the farewell touches on its 2014-15 season at its awards event, the Irish returning players were eager to start applying the lessons in leadership they learned in a 32-6 season that had moments which, as head coach Mike Brey said, captured the nation.
Senior-to-be Zach Auguste, Notre Dame's most improved player this past season, said the Irish plan to forge another season built on brotherhood and commitment to team.
"I think we'll have the same type of identity," Auguste said. "We're going to be a very unselfish team, and we're going to care a lot about each other. We have some great players coming in. We're going to play basketball Notre Dame's way, and that's going to carry us far, just like it did this year.
"We have to come into the season confident and ready," Auguste said. "We're not settled and we're not happy where we're at. We want to get another championship. That's going to be another goal that I want to get. We're going to have a big target on our back, and that's something I love to play with. It will be so fun to play with. Everybody wants to knock us down. This is going to make the games that much better and that much more fun."
Vasturia expects grit and grind to carry championship hopes next season.
"I think you're going to see that same toughness, that same edge we had this year," Vasturia said. "We're going to bring that on the floor next year.
"I think you're going to see a team that can really run a lot, with Demetrius (Jackson) running the point and having Zach running the floor. Guys like V.J. (Beachem) and Bonzie (Colson) bring a lot of athleticism. I think we're going to have a really special team and do some big things."
Jackson, who will be the Irish point guard again next season, believes the ACC Championship banner can be the start of a men's basketball championship gallery at Purcell.
"We want to be ACC champs again," Jackson said. "That's a goal we're going to continue to work towards, and it's an attainable goal. We can do it with hard work. We worked so hard this past season. We know what it feels like now, so if we continue to work really hard, we can take it to the next level."
Auguste said he's ready to embrace the challenge of leadership.
"I'm excited to take on that leadership position," Auguste said. "I know my brothers will have my back. I'm excited to take what I've learned from Jerian and Pat, to talk to my teammates the right way and to lead by example. That's something I want to get better at. It's a challenge I accept. I have to get better at a lot of different aspects, I will and I know my teammates will help me.
"Talking to your teammates is something we practice as a team. Communicating the right way is an important part of leading. We've been able to have constructive criticism. I have to be able to accept the criticism that I get. As a leader, I have to be able to give it back. We have to say it in a way that may be harsh, but we have to understand, that as men, we have to be able to take it."
Vasturia said the Irish came away from their epic NCAA Elite Eight battle against unbeaten Kentucky hungry for more success.
"Any time you end a season with a loss, you're going to have a bad taste in your mouth," Vasturia said. "The group of guys coming back is excited to start this new season, this next chapter. We're all hungry to get better. We know a lot of people know about us now, and we have an opportunity to make more noise and keep putting Notre Dame on the map."