Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton enters select starting company

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Cutting across a court littered with empty popcorn boxes, cups and other assorted items discarded from the just-completed college basketball game, Notre Dame coach Mike Brey thought aloud three years ago to the day, Thursday, as he pondered a possible lineup change.

The Irish had just dropped two-straight Big East games — a Saturday matinee at home to Connecticut and a Monday meltdown at Rutgers. As Brey made his way back to the locker room that night at the RAC, he wondered whether it might be time to again tinker with his starting five.

Then-No. 1 and undefeated Syracuse was coming to town in five days. If the Irish wanted to snap their two-game league losing streak during that 2011-12 season, a freshman would be handed a heavier role.

It was time to start swingman Pat Connaughton. This time, for good.

When injury and illness and ineffectiveness dominated the first month of his freshman season, Connaughton made three cameo starts before going back to the bench when Big East play commenced. Then, with the Irish reeling and needing something, Connaughton jumped back into the starting lineup.

Connaughton connected on his first two shots the first three minutes — both from 3 — as Notre Dame upset Syracuse. It was the first of nine consecutive league victories. And Connaughton never again left the starting five.

In Wednesday’s 62-59 victory at Georgia Tech, Connaughton made the 100th consecutive start of his college career. Only two Irish in program history — Pat Garrity (1995-98) and Chris Thomas (2002-05) — have started at least 100 consecutive games.

“That’s just amazing athletic ability and durability,” Brey said. “Pat’s a freak athletically. Great mental toughness. He is wired a different way.”

And he’s carved his niche in a different way. Garrity and Thomas are both among the top five scorers in school history. Connaughton’s value has come in other areas. He’s the lone captain and the calmest voice in huddles. He’s so steady every day at practice, in games and on the road that Brey has come to call him “Old Reliable.”

Connaughton never considered the possibility of going for 100-straight starts.

“When I came in here as a freshman, I was more focused on getting in the games, let alone starting them,” he said. “As I got in a few games, I wanted to see how much impact I could make and how much I could help the team.

“Eventually, I was fortunate enough to start.”

Connaughton ranks 20th in career games played in an Irish uniform at 119. He’s 18 shy of breaking Tory Jackson’s school record of 136.

More than his starts and his stats — he’s third on the team in scoring (14.1), first in rebounding (8.2) and second in minutes (34.0) — it’s been his steadiness that has helped No. 12 Notre Dame (16-2, 4-1 ACC) already eclipse last season’s win total.

Nothing fazes the guy. Nothing.

Just lead. Just play. Just win.

“At some point, you’ve gotta help the team win games and set your goals as high as possible,” he said. “You take it as a day-by-day process.”

He’s been good year to year to year to year.

Auguste update

The latest update on junior power forward Zach Auguste and his academic issue is ... no update.

Back on campus to take care of an academic matter, Auguste was waiting in the locker room when the Irish traveling party arrived home Thursday from Atlanta around 1:45 a.m. He was expected to practice Thursday, but his status for Saturday’s game against Miami (Fla.) is unclear.

“If something were to change, then we’d be ready to work him in there,” Brey said. “He’s got work to do. He’s in the process of doing it. We get the right feedback, maybe he rejoins us. But it’s still early in the game.”

Until then, the team’s second-leading scorer (14.3) and rebounder (6.4) is a member of the blue (reserve) team in practices.

“We kind of move forward,” Brey said.

Brey admitted part of him was surprised to hear of Auguste’s academic issue and part of him wasn’t. At places like Notre Dame, where the emphasis on academics is at such a premium, Brey said coaches are prepared at the end/start of every semester that a player might not cut it academically.

“One of the reasons the degree is so valuable here is it’s a hard school,” Brey said. “The guys in that locker room and me, we all know what we signed up for here. “Our eyes are very wide open.”

Eyes wide open and hands tied. Brey has no say in the timetable of when — or if — Auguste may return.

“When it comes to academics, it’s always out of my hands,” Brey said. “It’s not like I’m coaching DeMatha (High School), and I walk down the hall to the English teacher and go, ‘Hey, what’s up with my guy?’

“Those days are over. You don’t do that.”

Confident closer

Abandoned yet again by his jump shot and having again committed two critical turnovers at a key time late in the second half Wednesday, Irish guard Jerian Grant stayed confident that he could make a play in a close contest.

When the Irish needed a basket for some breathing room in the final seconds of a three-point win at Georgia Tech, Grant was going to go and get the ball and get it done. With the Irish up by one and 21 seconds remaining, Grant drove hard from the right side, slammed on the brakes, put a dribble between his legs from back to front and buried his patented step-back/fade jumper to give the Irish a three-point lead.

Up to that point, Grant had been 4-of-11 from the floor. He had also turned it over twice in the final four-plus minutes with the Irish up one.

“I was calling for the ball; I wanted it,” said Grant. “The guys still look for me and they told me to still keep my head up, even though I had some turnovers and some missed shots.

“The guys keep giving me confidence, and I knew the shot was going up.”

Confident club

It hit a point in each of the last three Irish league wins, which include two on the road, where seemingly nothing rattles a group that was nothing but rattled last season.

Against Georgia Tech at home on Jan. 3, the Irish had to defend late in regulation to force overtime before winning in double overtime. Two nights later, they again had to defend at the end of the game to beat North Carolina. On Wednesday, in the first half, the Irish were tossed into their largest deficit of the season — 12 points — but still figured out a way to battle back, take the lead in the second half, and again get it to game situations and execute when the win was there for the taking.

For the second-straight time on the road in league play, the Irish won a one-possession game. That likely would not have been the case a year ago.

Afterward, former Wake Forest coach Dave Odom, who worked the game as a color analyst for the ACC Network, made it a point to mention to Brey how impressed he was with his team’s mental and physical makeup.

“It’s a tough group,” Brey said. “You do have a group that really kind of believes, no matter how far they’re down or they’re not playing well. Our two seniors (Connaughton and Grant) give us that.”

Baseline bits

• Saturday’s home game against Miami (Fla.) is expected to be a sellout, with only scattered single seats still available.

• Wednesday marked the first time the Irish have won their first two league road games since 2004-05, when they were still in the Big East. That year, Notre Dame opened 2-0 with victories over Seton Hall and West Virginia.

• League road games this month have seen Notre Dame win for the first time on the campuses of North Carolina (now 1-3 all-time) and Georgia Tech (1-4).

• The Irish are 4-1 in league play for the first time since matching that mark in 2004-05 while in the Big East.

• Notre Dame’s defense held Georgia Tech to six baskets and 23.1 shooting in the second half.

• Notre Dame went without a dunk for the first time this year Wednesday. Unofficially, the Irish have 71 dunks.

• The 59 points allowed were the fewest the Irish have ever allowed in an ACC game.

• Notre Dame heads into the weekend alone in third place in the ACC.

• After riding the same starting five the first 17 games, the Irish started a different group in both halves Wednesday. Freshman Martinas Geben made his first career start, before fellow freshman Bonzie Colson took his spot to open the second half.

• Notre Dame ranks first in the nation in field goal percentage (53.0), second in assist/turnover ratio (1.67), fifth in scoring margin (19.9) and ninth in 3-point field goal percentage (40.7).

• Former Irish standout Tommy Hawkins, still the leading rebounder in school history, will enter the Notre Dame Ring of Honor during Saturday’s halftime. He joins former Irish Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley and Luke Harangody, and former coach Digger Phelps.

Notre Dame's Pat Connaughton (24) steals the ball from Georgia Tech's Demarco Cox during the second half of Wednesday's game. It was Connaughton's 100th-straight start.AP Photo/DAVID TULIS