Notre Dame men couldn’t corral Wake’s Williams

TOM NOIE
South Bend Tribune

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GREENSBORO, N.C. — Shots that usually felt good and right and true in preparation for Wednesday’s ACC first round game just weren’t falling for Wake Forest guard Coron Williams.

That made him a little nervous. Lose the first round game, and his college career would be over. Something had to change. And soon.

It sure did.

Williams made consecutive 3-pointers within 40 seconds early in the game — wide-open looks that allowed him time to set his feet, take a deep breath and maybe even count the fans in the stands — on his way to a career-high 25 points. He was a big reason why No. 13 seed Notre Dame (15-17) headed for home following an 81-69 loss.

Williams made seven of his eight shots from the floor, including four of five from 3 and seven of eight from the foul line. His teammates were just as hot. Wake Forest shot 61 percent from the floor and 70 percent from 3 in winning a conference tournament game for the first time since 2007.

“When everybody’s clicking like that, it’s contagious,” Williams said. “And that’s what happened.”

Williams insisted that his big game had more to do with being aggressive and finding different spots for his shots — and then continuing to take them — than it was the Irish having little regard for No. 13, who came into the contest averaging 9.5 points.

“I was hunting shots,” he said. “I was finding little gaps and seams in the defense, and I was able to finish it.”

The more the Demon Deacons made shots, the more Williams could see the collective defensive energy of the Irish sag. Hands that were up earlier in the game went down. Feet that moved a little quicker early on slowed. Wake Forest started strong and seldom cooled. That left the Irish to wonder. A lot.

“When you make a few tough baskets, it’s like, ‘Awww, man,’” Williams said of the Irish mindset. “When that happens, you just have to keep pounding, keep pounding.

“It’s hard to stop it.”

Notre Dame never did.

Grant watches

Wearing a green-and-white checkered short-sleeve shirt and a tan baseball hat, former and future Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant sat in a front-row aisle seat behind the Irish bench.

Wednesday was the first time that Grant, accompanied by his father, Harvey, was in the same building as Notre Dame since a Dec. 21 loss to Ohio State in Madison Square Garden. In the hours that followed, Grant announced on the school’s website that, because of an “academic misstep,” he would withdraw from the university for the spring semester.

Grant declined a Tribune interview request prior to Wednesday’s game. He said he’s spent the last two-plus months visiting relatives in California, Kansas and Missouri while tracking the Irish fortunes on television. He never did, as Brey once hoped, get a job.

“I’ve just been working out,” he said.

At the time of his departure, Grant was averaging team highs for points (19.0) and assists (6.0). Grant plans to work through the school’s re-admission process, re-enroll this summer and finish work toward his undergraduate degree. He will accompany the Irish on their foreign tour of Italy, which commences the first week of August.

How anxious is Grant for June to get here so he can return to Notre Dame?

“I can’t even explain it,” he said.

Notre Dame went 7-13 without Grant. The Bowie, Md., native plans to remain in Greensboro to watch his younger brother, Jerami, a sophomore at No. 2 seed Syracuse.

Connaughton’s plan

An indication of what comes next — for now — for Irish junior captain Pat Connaughton sat behind him in a Greensboro Coliseum locker stall.

It was his green Irish baseball hat.

In the coming days and weeks, Connaughton will transition from being a do-it-all swingman on the basketball team to a starting right-handed pitcher with the Irish baseball team.

What’s after that is anyone’s guess. Connaughton is expected to be a high-round selection in the early-June Major League Baseball amateur draft. He still has every intention of returning for his senior season in basketball, where he will be a team captain and a main guy.

“That’s the plan,” he said.

Coach Mike Brey knows those plans could change depending on what happens in June. Brey isn’t planning on Connaughton accompanying the Irish to Italy because of a possible baseball commitment, but does plan on having him available when practice begins in October.

“He really wants to play and come back,” Brey said. “I know he’s dead-set on that. I know that there’s always a chance they’ll put a lot of money on the table and say, ‘You’re not shooting free throws anymore.’

“He just needs to go and do his thing baseball-wise (in the summer).”

Connaughton scored a team-high 19 points with five rebounds, three assists and three steals in 39 minutes against Wake Forest. It was career game No. 101 and consecutive start No. 82 for the Arlington, Mass., native.

Some 30 members of the Irish baseball team attended Wednesday’s game and sat in a section near the Notre Dame bench. The team, which is 6-9 so far, is in North Carolina during spring break and opens a series Friday at Duke.

“Luckily they were here with support,” Connaughton said.

Tourney tidbits

•Wednesday marked the first time since 2008 that the Irish failed to win at least one conference tournament game.

•Prior to the last two visits for the ACC and NCAA tournaments, the last time Notre Dame played in the Greensboro Coliseum was Dec. 31, 1965, a 95-73 loss to Duke. The Irish are 0-3 all-time in Greensboro.

•The Irish were 0-2 in black uniforms this season. The only other time they wore them was early in league play at Maryland. Notre Dame never did wear the other uniforms (white and green) made by adidas during its final year of affiliation with the shoe company.

•Brey enters next season with 399 career victories. After Brey got his 300th win at Notre Dame on Feb. 26 against Georgia Tech, the Irish didn’t win again.

•Notre Dame fielded 12 different starting lineups this season.

•Irish guard Eric Atkins and power forward Garrick Sherman will participate in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament later this month. Both have plans to play somewhere — likely Europe — next season. Fellow senior captain Tom Knight has no plans to continue playing.

•Brey hopes the Irish can play as many as five games during their foreign tour of Italy.

Former Notre Dame player Jerian Grant looks on from the stands during the first round of the ACC men's basketball tournament on Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)