Notre Dame hoops comeback familiar for Connaughton

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

When Sunday’s halftime horn sounded against North Carolina State, Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton hustled off the basketball court toward an east exit at PNC Arena.

Physically, he was headed back to the Irish locker room. Mentally, he had stepped back to a certain Saturday night in Philadelphia late in his freshman season.

Connaughton’s tip-in to beat the horn Sunday allowed the Irish to get within 12 points of the Wolfpack, who played a near-flawless first half that saw them lead by as many as 18 points. The bucket gave the Irish a much-needed shot of something to feel good about at the break.

Been there, done that, Connaughton thought about the halftime deficit. But could the No. 8 Irish do it again?

Connaughton was a freshman on a Notre Dame team that trailed Villanova by 20 points, 39-19, in the opening 20 minutes on Feb. 18, 2012. That night saw Notre Dame trail by 16 at half before it battled back to force overtime and win, 74-70.

The Irish run through a whole host of game situations during the week in practices, but seldom have they worked through scenarios where they have to come back from nearly 20 points down – on the road – for a league win.

Connaughton and fifth-year senior Jerian Grant actually did it in the Villanova game.

“It crossed my mind at halftime,” said Connaughton, who had 21 points and nine rebounds in that win three years ago. “We were in better position (Sunday). The biggest thing was when we got to overtime, we felt that second wind.”

Notre Dame spent almost the entire 40 minutes of regulation Sunday trying to scramble back to steady ground. The third Irish overtime game of the season featured only four ties and five lead changes. Notre Dame never led by more than one before the additional five minutes, then jumped up by as many as four in an 81-78 victory.

“It was a little bit up and down, a little emotional, a little roller-coaster,” Connaughton said.

In the end, it was another Atlantic Coast Conference road win for Notre Dame. The Irish are 4-0 on the road for the first time in school history.

“It’s changed,” Connaughton said. “We’re a new team. The biggest thing is we’ve worked on road atmosphere in practice.”

Last week was a good example. With the main floor of Purcell Pavilion available for the afternoon workout, the Irish instead chose to practice in The Pit. That way, they could crank up the noise and the distractions, either with music or piped-in crowd sounds. That forced the Irish to match it with intensity and focus.

“That’s the type of atmosphere that was out there (Sunday),” Connaughton said. “They have great fans, great atmosphere and an even better atmosphere to win in.”

The look

With the perimeter shots not falling in Sunday’s first half — the Irish went 1-for-11 from 3 — Grant got a certain look in his eye that told his teammates he was ready to go into full-on attack mode.

Grant then got it in gear for a game-high 25 points. Combined with his work Thursday at Virginia Tech, Grant earned league player of the week honors for the second time this season.

“I love when he hits us for open shots (on assists), but when he’s in attack mode, in our opinion, he’s the best player in the country,” said sophomore swingman V.J. Beachem. “As long as he’s in attack mode, we love it.”

Grant scored 17 of his 25 points in the second half and overtime. He just took over – and took big shots – at critical times. Grant leads the Irish in scoring (17.1) and assists (6.7), and leads the ACC in assist/turnover ratio (3.36). He admitted late Sunday that this season has been the best he’s ever played in his collegiate career.

“No question,” he said. “The guys give me a lot of confidence.”

Grant saw Sunday that when the rim seemed to be closed tightly despite so many open looks, he had to do something to get the Irish going. So he started driving it, started attacking, which loosened everything else up.

“It’s definitely something I have to do,” he said of his aggressiveness. “There are going to be nights when our shots don’t fall and that’s when I have to get easy baskets and get to the free throw line.”

Grant attempted a season-high 11 free throws. He made nine, also tops this year.

Board work

Crushed on the interior to the tune of 20 points in the paint that saw the Wolfpack get four straight dunks in two minutes and shoot 62.1 percent from the field in the first half, the Irish knew they had to fine-tune the defense Sunday if they had any chance.

That meant gang-rebounding while leaning heavily on their guard-heavy lineup. Notre Dame finished with a 43-34 rebounding advantage.

It was the second straight league game that the Irish won the battle of the boards. They finished with their most decisive rebounding advantage (+14) three nights earlier at Virginia Tech, then neutralized North Carolina State and its bigger, more active bodies.

“I was a little surprised that we were able to get to the board like that,” Brey said. “We do have great nose-for-the-ball guys.”

Each of the core six players in the rotation grabbed at least three rebounds. Notre Dame snared 18 offensive rebounds, which produced 10 second-chance points. That kept the Irish deficit from soaring past 20 in the first half.

“The second shots we got were really key,” Brey said. “That really kind of kept us believing we weren’t going to get blown out.”

Baseline bits

• Notre Dame’s 19-2 record is its best start since 1973-74 when it opened 20-1. The Irish also are 7-1 in league play for the first time in school history.

• A 2-0 week saw the Irish spot in the national polls remain status quo at No. 8. Wednesday’s opponent, Duke, also went 2-0 (Pittsburgh, St. John’s), but jumped from No. 5 to 4 in the Associated Press poll after trading places with Wisconsin.

• Only one team in the AP Top 25 – No. 3 Gonzaga – had more wins (20) than Notre Dame entering this week.

• Notre Dame has trailed by double figures in five of its last seven league games. Four of those have been wins. The only one that wasn’t was Jan. 10 against No. 2 Virginia.

• Two dunks Sunday from Zach Auguste unofficially gives the Irish 76 this season.

• Irish have won a season-high four straight league games.

North Carolina State's Abdul-Malik Abu battles between Notre Dame 's Pat Connaughton and Bonzie Colson during Sunday's game.AP Photo/KARL B DEBLAKER