Goals achieved together by Notre Dame hoops seniors

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

A side door from a Joyce Center back staircase opened one weekday afternoon last month and out rolled the two seniors from the No. 12 Notre Dame men's basketball team.

Together.

Their pre-game meal complete, the two chatted and laughed as they headed for the parking lot. They would return to their respective off-campus residences for an hour or so before another Atlantic Coast Conference game against Boston College that night.

Even apart, they're often together.

On game days, one would shoot the other a text with a reminder of how important another league win was for the conference standings and the team's NCAA tournament resume. The other might reply in a way that had nothing to do with hoops by mentioning current events or who got the best of the other in a recent battle at the Madden NFL 15. Texts from one to the other often arrived at all hours. About the team. About the season. About life.

Hours later, each shot 4-of-11 from the field. Each played 39 minutes. Each was a factor as Notre Dame coasted to a relatively stress-free league win over Boston College. Each met the media afterward for post-game sound bites and quotes. After a shower and a fresh change of clothes, each gathered near the Irish bench in the empty arena with family and friends before exiting into the cold night.

Together.

Several additional chapters remain to be written this month about what has been a storybook Notre Dame season. When it does end, 2014-15 will forever be defined by the two guys who appear on the cover of the media guide, two guys who were determined to tag-team and steer the Irish ship back to success.

Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant.

Pat and Jerian.

Grant and Connaughton.

Jerain and Pat.

Without one, the success of the other this season likely would not have been possible. Both had doors of other opportunity open last season, but both kept them closed and addressed unfinished college basketball business.

Together.

On Saturday, they will fittingly stand together on Senior Day prior to the season finale against Clemson.

“We decided to come back together knowing that we needed each other if we wanted to make this thing special,” Grant said. “It's been like that all season. I've needed him; he's needed me.

“That is special.”

A common bond

Their paths first crossed in the fall before the 2010-11 college basketball season. Before the Irish embarked on a season that saw them go 27-7, Grant was preparing to sit out his freshman year to grow his body and allow a stress reaction in his left leg to heal. He so wanted to play. But on a team that featured five senior starters, including eventual Big East player of the year Ben Hansbrough, there weren't enough meaningful minutes. So he watched. And waited.

When he made his official visit to Notre Dame as a high school senior, Connaughton and Grant may have exchanged two words the entire weekend. Connaughton didn't know Grant; Grant didn't know Connaughton. They were going to be teammates, but didn't know if they had anything beyond that in common.

That changed when Connaughton returned to campus in 2011 for summer school. Maybe it was the early-morning offseason conditioning sessions. Or the late-night pickup games. Somewhere along the way, they realized they had a whole lot in common on the basketball court. They formed a friendship that would flourish on and off the floor.

Each has had exactly one road roommate – one another - for ACC trips this year.

During the 2011-12 season, Grant was ready to roll in his first year of college basketball. Connaughton also believed he could find a role despite being counseled repeatedly by the team's upperclassmen that freshmen had to wait their turn.

“I had a personal desire to change that,” Connaughton said. “He helped me with that.”

The competitiveness of both drew one to the other. Both wanted to play, and both wanted to do whatever was needed for the Irish to be better. For Grant, that meant doing a little of this, a little of that. For Connaughton, his first role was that of a spot-up shooter, usually from 3, almost always in the corner. The following year, he developed into the defensive stopper. For the last two, he's been the program's rock, there to compete every day.

Grant saw early that Connaughton was not a normal freshman. Connaughton saw that Grant could do whole lot to impact a game. Both were players. Serious players.

“It started with that,” Connaughton said, “and then the rest is history.”

“That's really where we got to connect,” Grant said. “Even though I have three brothers, he's like a brother to me.”

Connaughton stepped into the starting lineup over halfway through his freshman year. Grant was already there. Neither ever left.

Saturday is career game No. 132 for Connaughton. An extended postseason will flirt with the school record for games played, currently Tory Jackson's 136. On Wednesday in snowy Louisville, Connaughton moved past former Irish All-American Pat Garrity and second in school history with consecutive start No. 112. Only Chris Thomas (128) has been in the starting lineup for more consecutive games than No. 24.

Only the fifth player to serve as solo captain since 1985, Connaughton is one of 10 in program history with at least 1,300 points (1,375) and 700 rebounds (778).

Grant makes career start No. 110 Saturday in career game No. 112. He's one of two Irish (Thomas) with at least 1,600 points (1,613) and 600 assists (636).

Connaughton has been a part of Irish teams that have won at least 25 games two of the last three years. Grant has been a part of teams that have won at least 25 games in three of his five years. Three wins would set the Notre Dame record for most victories in a season. That it might happen with Connaughton and Grant as the leaders is no accident.

“There's some great mental toughness with this group,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “Our two seniors give us that.”

A lasting legacy

Connaughton and Grant each had chances to put college basketball in their rear-view mirrors after last season. An “academic misstep” forced Grant to skip the spring semester for what would become an Irish team that labored to go 15-17, 6-12 during their first ACC season. Soon after his final game – a gut-wrenching loss to Ohio State - Grant figured his next step would be the NBA. Forget returning to school. He could do that years down the road after a long and successful pro career.

Turning the page would be easy. But the more he thought about it and the more time he was away, the more Grant kept coming back to having one more year with Connaughton.

Grant had to go back … only if Connaughton returned.

That was no guarantee following his selection by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of the June amateur draft. If he wanted to become a professional pitcher full-time, and if the Orioles tempted him with a contract offer and dollars he simply couldn't refuse, it was there for the taking.

The two talked almost daily while apart for the better part of six months. They discussed their hopes and dreams and what they would do together this winter. They would return. They would lead. They would win.

They now joke that returning to Notre Dame was a package deal. But it was true.

“If he wasn't coming back, I wasn't coming back,” Connaughton said. “We wanted to be in this thing together and end it together. Last season wasn't the way we wanted to go out.

“We wanted to come back this year and leave a different legacy.”

Grant always felt he would lead a team simply by the way he played. Words seldom were needed as long as his actions were strong. Thanks to Connaughton, Grant found a voice that would have remained silent had he had to go it alone this season.

"If I was here by myself, it was going to be tough being thrown into that (leadership) role," Grant said. "Having him here with me has been big-time. He's helped me become that leader that I am now."

Team guys

Blue and gold and white banners honoring Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Harangody and coach Digger Phelps as members of the school's Ring of Honor hang behind the basket at the east end of Purcell Pavilion. To the left are another group of banners that mark the years of Notre Dame's involvement in the NCAA tournament, advancement to the Sweet 16 and participation in the Final Four. The last date on the first one is 2013. That soon will change. The last date on the second is 2003. The third has one date – 1978.

Grant has seen both sets of banners every day for all of the five years he's been in the building. He dreams about one set more than another - the ones that celebrate team achievements.

Grant and Connaughton will one day have a banner with their name and number in the Ring of Honor, but they're chasing those team banners, particularly the ones with the dates of 2003 and 1978 on them. Those numbers, they've noticed, are gathering dust all alone.

“It's easy to be a great individual player, but when you have a great team, that lasts way longer,” Grant said. “When you make it the Sweet 16 or the Final Four, that year stays up there forever.

“We didn't come back to boost our own statistics. We came back to leave this program in a better place.”

Connaughton has been one of the schools' greatest ambassadors on and off the floor. He played two sports and played them the right way. One never became a distraction to the other. He wouldn't allow it. He stayed to get his degree. He was the textbook student-athlete.

How does Connaughton want to be remembered when the final 40 minutes of his home career end?

“Just playing and helping the team win,” he said. “He did it the right way, the Notre Dame way.”

On Saturday, one big part of their college careers comes to a close. But much more awaits next week at the ACC tournament and then the following week in the NCAA tournament. Connaughton and Grant have a chance to go out with a heck of a memorable run.

“It's crazy to think that it's here, but it's going to be nice to share that day with him, then leave it all on the floor one more time,” Connaughton said. “We have a lot more to play for.”

Together.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

@tnoieNDI

Notre Dame seniors Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton play their final home games Saturday against Clemson.AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND

WHO: No. 12 Notre Dame (25-5 overall, 13-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) vs. Clemson (16-13, 8-9).

WHERE: Purcell Pavilion (9,149).

WHEN: Saturday at 4 p.m.

TV: WMYS.

TICKETS: The game is a sellout.

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM).

ONLINE: Follow every Notre Dame game with live updates from Tribune beat writer Tom Noie at twitter.com@tnoieNDI.

WORTH NOTING: After scoring 12 points all season, Clemson reserve forward Gabe DeVoe had 18 points in only six minutes during a 66-61 home loss Tuesday to North Carolina State. Jaron Blossomgame added a team-high 10 rebounds for the Tigers, who shot 29.9 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3. The Wolfpack scored 46 points in the paint and broke it open with a 20-2 run midway through the second half. … Clemson has lost three of its last four league games and five of seven. … The Tigers are 3-5 on the road in the ACC with victories at Florida State, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh. … Nine Tigers average double figures for minutes but only one, Blossomgame (12.8), averages double figures for points. … Clemson averages 62.2 points and allows 61.1 a game. … Jerian Grant scored 22 points with five assists and Pat Connaughton added 14 points and six rebounds as Notre Dame beat Clemson, 60-58, on Feb. 10. … Blossomgame led the Tigers with 17 points and 14 rebounds in a game that featured six ties and 12 lead changes. … The Irish lead the all-time series 2-0. … Last season’s meeting in South Bend went to double overtime before a 68-64 Notre Dame win. … Notre Dame is 16-2 at home, 6-2 in league play with losses to Virginia and Syracuse. … An Irish win would tie the school record for most league victories in a season. Notre Dame twice went 14-4 as a member of the Big East. … The Irish are coming off Wednesday’s 71-59 victory at No. 16 Louisville. Freshman Bonzie Colson registered career highs for points (17), rebounds (9) and minutes (26). Sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson added 21 points. … Colson is averaging 16.3 points and 6.6 rebounds on 79.1 percent shooting (19-of-24) the last three games. … Next up for Notre Dame will be the tournament quarterfinals Thursday in Greensboro, N.C., against an opponent and time to be determined. The Irish will be the No. 3 seed … They finished tied for 11th and were the No. 13 seed in the tournament last season.

WORTH QUOTING: “I’m glad we’re still hungry, even though we have the double-bye (in the ACC tournament) locked up. Certainly, we’ll be hungry Saturday because we want to send those seniors out the right way.”

-Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.