Jerian Grant takes control as Notre Dame downs Wake Forest

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Six days away from game action for someone whose career will come to a close in the coming weeks can seem like an eternity.

Able to rest his mind and his legs for a couple days and get back into a good rhythm with his teammates on the practice floor for a couple more, fifth-year senior guard Jerian Grant grew tired of all the drills and the down time.

He couldn’t wait for the bright lights to be flipped back on at Purcell Pavilion when No. 10 Notre Dame returned to action Tuesday at home against Wake Forest.

Grant then played like he was ready. Really ready.

He did what a fifth-year senior guard needed to do to jump-start a sluggish Irish squad before an 88-75 victory. In Grant’s case during Tuesday’s second half, it was a little bit of everything.

When he wasn’t scoring, he was running wild in the open floor and finding teammate Austin Torres for a two-handed dunk. When he wasn’t swiping the ball from an unsuspecting Demon Deacon for one of his five steals, he was finding teammate Steve Vasturia with another perfect pocket pass and another 3-pointer. And then he finished around the rim.

When the final horn sounded on a game that saw the Irish go for a season high for points in a league game, Grant again left the floor as the best one on it following 24 points, 10 assists, those five steals and three rebounds in all 40 minutes.

“The stuff he was doing with the ball was amazing,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “He is in one heck of a rhythm.”

“It’s real easy to play with him,” said Vasturia. “He’s such a complete player.”

It was the third double-double of his season and seventh of Grant’s career. He wasn’t alone in the scoring department. The Irish placed five in double figures. One of those was sixth man V.J. Beachem, who delivered 10 points, three rebounds and two steals. He was one of three Irish, along with freshman Bonzie Colson and sophomore Austin Torres, to bring a boost off the bench.

The three combined for 23 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and three blocks.

“We just came off trying to provide a spark like we always do,” Beachem said. “We were just able to put the ball in the bucket tonight.”

Notre Dame improved to 23-4 — its best record since going 23-4 in 1973-74. The Irish also moved to 11-3 and still alone in second place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Tuesday was the first time in school history that Notre Dame beat Wake Forest (12-15, 4-10).

“We didn’t make enough plays to win the game,” said Demon Deacons coach Danny Manning.

Grant’s work helped the Irish overcome a little adversity. Fellow senior Pat Connaughton was knocked back with a stomach virus in the days before the game, and spent much of Tuesday hooked to an IV. Still, he kept texting Brey saying he was going to play, that he was fine. He would give it a go. Then he did.

Connaughton scored 13 points with four rebounds, two assists and two steals in 30 minutes.

“He’s unbelievable,” Brey said. “The guy’s a stud, man.”

After a sluggish first half that saw the Irish connect on one of their first 12 shots, one of the nation’s most efficient outfits eventually found its offensive gear. It started by getting some much-needed defensive stops to start the second half. Those followed a halftime in which nobody in the home locker room was very happy. Not after playing the first 20 minutes that featured nine ties and 15 lead changes while Wake Forest erupted for 41 points.

The Irish seemed OK with running up and down the floor and trading baskets the first 20 minutes. They knew they had to be better the second 20. Then they were, especially getting stops.

“We didn’t do any of that in the first half,” Vasturia said.

Those stops allowed Notre Dame to get out in transition. And that meant the ball was in the hands of Grant. He operated as if on a perpetual basketball power play. It was five-on-five for the second half, but a good chunk of it seemed like it was 5-on-4 or 5-on-3 with Grant simply dribbling and dealing, and doing as he pleased.

Grant cut loose for seven points and four assists in a 27-10 burst to start the second half.

“It feels like we’re playing our game; it feels like we’re really in our flow,” Grant said. “The lane opens up for me ‘cause guys can’t help off anymore. It’s just an array of weapons.”

Grant’s pull-up jumper early in the first half capped a 7-0 run and gave the Irish a four-point lead. It also allowed the senior to become only the second player in school history (Chris Thomas), with at least 1,500 points and 600 assists in his career.

While the Irish shots didn’t fall from the field with the usual regularity, they did from the foul line. The extended time away allowed Notre Dame to spend a whole lot more time in the Pit practice facility, where there are more baskets. That allows for the Irish to split up in pairs to shoot free throws. They shot a lot of them, sometimes for as long as 20 minutes.

Brey said they shot about 80 percent over three days of practices.

The additional work paid off.

Notre Dame connected on 27 of 28 for a season-high 96.4 percent. Only power forward Zach Auguste, who bounced back from two sub-par games with 12 points and four rebounds, failed to convert a free throw.

Brey joked that the Irish would make Auguste run Thursday in practice.

After going 1-of-7 from the foul line in the Feb. 7 loss at Duke, Grant is a combined 15-for-15, including 8-of-8 Tuesday, in his last two games.

“Just getting more reps,” Grant said. “My confidence is getting good knocking them down in practice.”

Notre Dame came into Tuesday’s game shooting 70.5 percent from the foul line this season, but only 68.8 percent in league games.

“It was just guys getting in the gym, getting reps and staying confident,” Vasturia said. “We know we were a little better than what we were doing.”

A moment of silence was held before the national anthem for former North Carolina coach Dean Smith, who died Feb. 8.

Notre Dame’s stretch of three games in eight days continues Saturday at Boston College. The Irish are 5-2 on the road in league play.

WAKE FOREST (75): Devin Thomas 10-17 6-6 26, Greg McClinton 0-1 0-0 0, Dinos Mitoglou 4-7 0-0 8, Codi Miller-McIntyre 3-8 3-6 10,Mitchell Wilbekin 1-5 0-0Aaron 3, Madison Jones 2-4 2-3 6, Darius Leonard 4-7 0-0 10, Cornelius Hudson 3-12 0-0 8, Rountree III 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 29-63 11-15 75.

NOTRE DAME (88): Zach Auguste 2-3 8-9 12, Demetrius Jackson 0-6 4-4 4, Jerian Grant 7-15 8-8 24, Pat Connaughton 4-12 2-2 13, Steve Vasturia 4-8 0-0 12, Austin Torres 2-4 1-1 5, V.J. Beachem 4-10 0-0 10, Bonzie Colson 2-4 4-4 8. Totals 25-62 27-28 88.

Halftime: Notre Dame 43-41. 3-Point Goals: Wake Forest 6-18 (Leonard 2-2, Hudson 2-7, Miller-McIntyre 1-1, Wilbekin 1-3, Jones 0-1, McClinton 0-1, Mitoglou 0-3), Notre Dame 11-26 (Vasturia 4-6, Connaughton 3-8, Grant 2-5, Beachem 2-6, Jackson 0-1). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds--Wake Forest 39 (Thomas 11), Notre Dame 35 (Jackson 6, Torres 6). Assists: Wake Forest 17 (Miller-McIntyre 5), Notre Dame 15 (Grant 10). Total Fouls: Wake Forest 18, Notre Dame 16. A--8,421.

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Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant looks to make a play Tuesday against Wake Forest.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ