Sharing it helps No. 12 Notre Dame, seniors cruises past Clemson

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Somewhere within the running dialogue that Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant swapped about how they wanted their final home game at Notre Dame to go was the dream that both would score 40 points in another easy win.

One out of two sure will do.

Grant scored 19 points to tie for the team high and handed out a game-best eight assists while Connaughton had seven points and four rebounds before both left the floor – fittingly, together – with 2:11 remaining in an 81-67 victory over Clemson.

“There were a lot of emotions,” Connaughton said of the tandem exit. “The best thing about it is we were able to come off the court with a win and we were able to come off the court knowing it’s not our last game together.

“It’s something we determine, something we decide when our last game together is.”

The win boosted Notre Dame to 26-5 to close a regular season that never saw it lose consecutive games. The Irish also finish 14-4 and in third place in their second season in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The 14 wins tie the school record for most wins in a conference season.

Notre Dame’s eight-game improvement in ACC play – it finished 6-12 last season – is the second-best in conference history, one game behind North Carolina, which went from five wins in 2010 to 14 in 2011.

Notre Dame never trailed and made this one look relatively easy by doing what the Irish do, and playing exactly the way that the pass-first Grant would have preferred the script to go. The Irish moved without the ball, made extra pass after extra pass, and found the right guys at the right times to the tune of 20 assists.

It’s the most assists the Irish have had in a league game and most since going for 22 against Chicago State two days after Thanksgiving.

“That’s our game; that’s the way we play,” Grant said. “We get stops, we outlet, we fast break and we move the ball around. That’s the perfect way to go out.”

One possession in a second half that saw Notre Dame shoot a sizzling 61.5 percent from the field said it all.

Demetrius Jackson dumped the ball down to the short corner for Bonzie Colson, who was swamped by Clemson defenders. Jackson immediately called for Colson to punch the ball back out. Once he gave it back to Jackson, the sophomore guard shot it to Connaughton at the top of the key. Connaughton held it for a beat before moving it to Steve Vasturia, who was camped in the corner opposite the Irish bench.

Vasturia connected to push the Irish lead to 14.

“Offensively, I thought we were really good the whole game,” said coach Mike Brey. “I’m really thrilled with how we’re playing offensively. We’re at a really high level there.”

It was the most points that Clemson (16-14, 8-10) has allowed this season.

“I just didn’t feel our team was locked in defensively as we normally are,” said Tigers coach Brad Brownell, whose team came into the contest allowing 60.6 per game, second-fewest in league games.

While it was a day for the seniors and sharing, it also was a big afternoon for junior power forward Zach Auguste. A bit player for the better part of February, when he couldn’t get confident enough to get his game in gear, Auguste delivered 19 points with four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 29 minutes.

Auguste said knowing it was the last home game for Connaughton and Grant meant he simply had to deliver a big effort. He couldn’t let the leaders down with any more struggles that had surfaced in recent games.

Auguste played with an ease and a confidence about him that wasn’t seen the previous four weeks.

“It was a great bounce-back for me,” Auguste said. “I wanted to go out, play hard and it feels good to get back in a rhythm again. It means everything.”

Vasturia also did it on the defensive end. Nobody in an Irish uniform could guard redshirt sophomore forward Jaron Blossomgame for the first half of the first half. Averaging just under 13 points coming in, Blossomgame erupted for 13 in the first.

That’s when Vasturia was given the assignment of slowing him down. Vasturia played good position defense and never allowed Blossomgame to get comfortable. Following that early burst of points, Blossomgame managed nine the rest of the way.

“We had to kind of frustrate him,” Vasturia said. “He was getting a lot of easy paths to the basket. We had to keep him off the lane, push him off the block and be physical with him.

“We did a good job.”

Notre Dame also played with a little flair provided by Colson. Timing his flight through the lane just right, Colson soared to the rim and rebounded a missed Jackson layup with a right-handed slam. As he landed on the baseline, Colson stuck out his tongue to the delight of a sellout crowd before hustling back down the floor.

It was that type of feel-good, have-fun type of day all around.

As the Irish lead ballooned to as many as 21 – that on Colson’s dunk – the only to-do item left on Brey’s agenda was figuring out how to get his seniors off the floor to an ovation one final time.

Both were OK with putting aside any thoughts of going for 40.

“Once we got out on the court, we were like, ‘We’re going to play our game,’” Grant said. “We were going to do whatever we could to help our team win.”

Piggy-backing off Wednesday’s win at No. 16 Louisville, Notre Dame enters the postseason playing some of its best basketball and feeling confident – really confident – that they can extend their respective stays in the next two tournaments longer than usual.

“We were trying to build off the Louisville win,” Connaughton said. “We didn’t want to be satisfied with a big win.”

Next up for Notre Dame is the ACC tournament, where it will be the No. 3 seed after being the No. 13 seed a year ago. The Irish play Thursday around 9 p.m. against an opponent to be determined. If all seeds hold true Wednesday, Miami (Fla.) would be the opponent. The first-round game on the Notre Dame side of the bracket is No. 11 Wake Forest against No. 14 Virginia Tech.

CLEMSON (67): Jaron Blossomgame 9-12 3-5 22, Donte Grantham 1-6 1-2 4, Landry Nnoko 7-12 5-5 19, Rod Hall 2Gabe -3 0-0 4, Damarcus Harrison 0-2 0-0 0, Patrick Rooks 0-0 0-0 0, Austin Ajukwa 2-7 2-2 6, Gabe DeVoe 1-6 0-0 3, Jordan Roper 2-9 0-0 5, Josh Smith 0-1 0-0 0, Riley McGillan 0-2 0-0 0, Sidy Djitte 2-4 0-1 4. Totals 26-64 11-15 67.

NOTRE DAME (81): Zach Auguste 9-13 1-1 19, Demetrius Jackson 4-8 4-5 14, Jerian Grant 6-11 6-8 19, Pat Connaughton 3-8 0-0 7, Steve Vasturia 4-6 2-2 12, Austin Torres 0-0 0-0 0, V.J. Beachem 2-5 1-2 6, Matt Farrell 0-1 0-0 0,Eric Katenda 0-1 0-0 0,Austin Burgett 0-0 0-0 0, Martinas Geben 0-0 0-0 0, Bonzie Colson 2-2 0-0 4. Totals 30-55 14-18 81.

Halftime: Notre Dame 38-31. 3-Point Goals: Clemson 4-18 (Blossomgame 1-1, DeVoe 1-3, Grantham 1-4, Roper 1-5, Ajukwa 0-1, Harrison 0-1, Hall 0-1, McGillan 0-2), Notre Dame 7-21 (Vasturia 2-2, Jackson 2-5, Beachem 1-3, Grant 1-5, Connaughton 1-6). Fouled Out--None. Rebounds :Clemson 41 (Blossomgame 10), Notre Dame 28 (Colson, Grant, Jackson 5). Assists: Clemson 18 (DeVoe, Grantham 4), Notre Dame 20 (Grant 8). Total Fouls: Clemson 14, Notre Dame 15. A--9,149.

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From left, Bonzie Colson (35), Jerian Grant (22), Pat Connaughton (24) and Zach Auguste (30) watch a video of Grant and Connaughton's highlight video Saturday during Senior Day.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ

The start of college basketball’s second season this week – the postseason - may start in an award-winning way for Notre Dame, which finished in third place in its second season in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

On Sunday, the conference will announce its media awards for all-league and player of the year honors. Irish guard Jerian Grant is a certain first team selection, while the player of the year is expected to be either Grant or Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor.

On Monday, the league will announce its coaches’ all-league selections.

Here is how the All-ACC ballot of the Tribune’s Tom Noie would look:

First team

Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse

Quinn Cook, Duke

Jerian Grant, Notre Dame

Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Second team

Pat Connaughton, Notre Dame

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

Tyus Jones, Duke

London Perrantes, Virginia

Terry Rozier, Louisville

Third team

Olivier Hanlan, Boston College

Sheldon McClellan, Miami (Fla.)

Trevor Lacey, North Carolina State

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

Devin Thomas, Wake Forest

Honorable mention

Justin Anderson, Virginia

Jamel Artis, Pittsburgh

Trevor Cooney, Syracuse

Angel Rodriguez, Miami (Fla.)

Ralston Turner, North Carolina State

All-freshman team

Abdul-Malik Abu, North Carolina State

Tyus Jones, Duke

Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State

Justise Winslow, Duke

All-defensive team

BeeJay Anya, North Carolina State

Quinn Cook, Duke

Anthony Gill, Virginia

Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame

Tonye Jekiri, Miami (Fla.)

Most improved player: Rakeem Christmas, Syracuse

Defensive player of the year: Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia

Sixth man of the year: V.J. Beachem, Notre Dame

Coach of the year: Mike Brey, Notre Dame

Freshman of the year: Jahlil Okafor, Duke

Player of the year: Jerian Grant, Notre Dame