The kid got the best of the closer.
Returning to Notre Dame to finish his undergraduate degree and tend to unfinished business this college basketball season, guard Jerian Grant seldom dwelled on chasing any personal accolades. Play really well and return the No. 11 Irish to their winning ways, Grant figured, and the league's biggest individual honor would take care of itself.
He did, but it didn’t.
Grant tag-teamed with fellow senior Pat Connaughton to guide Notre Dame to its most regular-season victories (26) since winning 33 in 1908-09. When it came time for additional Atlantic Coast Conference postseason honors to go out Monday, Grant again was deemed second-best by the league’s 15 head coaches.
One day after missing out on conference player of the year as voted on by ACC media, Grant took another backseat to Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor when the coaches’ ballots for player of the year were revealed.
“It was an award I really wanted,” Grant said Monday. “It was a goal of mine, individually, but at the end of the day, we had a great season. I didn’t get it.
“The best way to show that I deserved it or that I wanted it is go out there and play.”
A first team all-league selection, Grant and coach Mike Brey downplayed any additional motivation for this week’s ACC tournament. The Irish already have plenty to play for, and still feel they can get better and prove plenty without Grant going on a revenge run.
“Our guys have been so good about not worrying about individual stuff,” Brey said. “They’ve been so chasing it as a group, and it really has started with Jerian in the first team meeting in June.
“He said we can’t do any of it without winning. He made a great run at it.”
Duke and Okafor and Notre Dame and Grant could meet Friday in the tournament semifinals. The teams split their two regular-season meetings.
Following Saturday’s victory over Clemson in the season finale, Brey figured Grant would be tabbed the league’s best by one of the voting entities – coaches or media. The more he talked with his fellow conference coaches, the more he figured they preferred Grant over Okafor, who also earned league freshman of the year in the coaches’ and media votes.
Brey miscalculated, and was asked Monday: If Notre Dame had been finishing up Year Five or Six in the ACC instead of its second, might the vote look a little different?
“Maybe so,” Brey said. “Probably earning our stripes a little bit. Maybe some people are upset we’re not a full member in football. You never know about that.”
Following a 19-point, eight-assist, five-rebound performance in the final home game of his collegiate career Saturday against Clemson, Grant figured he had done enough over the course of the previous six months to be the league’s best, no matter who had a vote.
“Jahlil Okafor is a great player,” Grant said. “He’s played great games throughout the season, but I just feel for what I bring to our team, where our team came from, it should go a long way.
“We’ve come a long way.”
Grant is a big reason. Maybe the reason. Without Okafor last season, Duke finished third in the ACC at 28-9, 13-5. With Okafor, the Blue Devils (28-3, 15-3) finished second this season. Without Grant for the second semester last season, Notre Dame finished 15-17, 6-12 in the ACC and was the No. 13 seed in the league tournament. With Grant, the Irish (26-5, 14-4) were ranked as high as No. 8 this winter, never lost consecutive games for the first time since 1988-89, and open conference tournament play in Thursday’s quarterfinals as the No. 3 seed.
“They would have been better this year if Grant wasn’t there, but they wouldn’t be anywhere near this,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said of the Irish during a recent ACC teleconference. “He’s got to be the most valuable player in the league. His value to that team is tremendous with what he’s done.”
Grant also earned a spot on the league’s all-defensive team.
Having led Notre Dame in scoring, assists and minutes this winter, Grant ranked fifth in the league in scoring (16.8), first in assists (6.6), 10th in free throw percentage (75.4), fifth in steals (1.81), first in assist/turnover ratio (3.23) and third in minutes (36.4). He also twice earned league player of the week recognition.
“He’s just really helped our team so much; he’s done so much for this program,” said sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson. “I’m happy to have him on my side.”
The postseason honors likely will continue to roll in in some way, shape or form for Grant this month. He’s a lock to be an All-District and first-team All-American selection by the United States Basketball Writers’ Association. He’s also a finalist for the Jerry West, Naismith and Wooden awards and the USBWA's Oscar Robertson Trophy.
Grant’s greatest impact this season was just being on the court. That allowed Notre Dame to play with a confidence that it would figure out how to win close games. Without Grant for the ACC portion of the schedule last year, Notre Dame lost eight conference contests decided by seven or fewer points. This league season, the Irish won seven decided by seven points or fewer.
“That’s where No. 22 is the difference-maker,” Brey said. “When you have Jerian at crunch time and in game situations, that’s where I think we were all very confident. The year before, we couldn’t finish those. We were in a lot of game situations but we didn’t have the closer.
“We’ve got the closer.”
Brey stayed sane last summer by hoping that the Irish had a chance to be better than the previous year because, in Grant and fellow senior Pat Connaughton, he had what he believed were two of the top 10 players in the ACC.
Make that two of the top 15.
For the first time in his collegiate career, Connaughton has earned an all-league team honor. He was a third-team selection Monday by the conference coaches. He also earned third-team honors Sunday in the media vote.
“It’s awesome,” Connaughton said. “Especially when you look at the list of guys in this conference on the first-, second-, third-(teams) and even honorable mention guys, and guys left off everything.
“This is the best league in America. To be honored leaves me a little speechless.”
The lone team captain, Connaughton is second on the squad in scoring (12.6) and leads in rebounding (7.8), which ranks eighth in the league. His 778 career rebounds leads all active ACC players.
He led the Irish this season with eight double-doubles for points and rebounds.
Connaughton was an honorable mention all-league selection last season.
By the numbers
Some notable Notre Dame numbers in ACC play as the regular season has come to a close:
The Irish finished second in scoring offense (78.9), eighth in scoring defense (65.3), third in scoring margin (+13.6), second in free throw percentage (72.8) and first in field goal percentage (51.0).
Notre Dame ranked eighth in the league in field goal percentage defense (42.4), third in 3-point field goal percentage (39.0), 13th in 3-point field goal percentage (33.8) and fourth in assists (15.1).
The Irish were fifth in the league in steals (6.8), third in turnover margin (+2.16), second in assist/turnover ratio (1.65) and first in 3-pointers made (8.39).
Only Virginia (16-2) and Duke (15-3) lost fewer league games than Notre Dame, which finished 14-4 in league play for the first time in the ACC and the third time in school history.
• Notre Dame scored at least 80 points in league games an ACC-best seven times this season. Duke and North Carolina each scored at least 80 six times. Last year, Notre Dame hit for at least 80 in a league game only once – an overtime loss in the home finale against Pittsburgh.
• Junior power forward Zach Auguste finished second to Okafor in field goal percentage at 61.5. Auguste and Jackson did not receive votes by league media for most improved player, which went to Syracuse senior power forward Rakeem Christmas.
• The Irish traveling party departed Monday night for Greensboro, N.C., and preparation for the ACC tournament. Notre Dame will practice in the Greensboro area Tuesday and Wednesday before Thursday’s quarterfinal tournament game, which is expected to tip around 9:30 p.m.
Notre Dame is currently on spring break so the usual missed-class policy is not an issue this week.