Mojo can help Notre Dame sidestep any NCAA upset

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH – Find the mojo before it’s too late.

Nobody inside the Notre Dame men’s basketball locker room Friday, especially senior leaders Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton, seemed the least bit concerned about rekindling the magic by 9:40 Saturday night when the Irish tip off against Butler.

It’s happened before. But, there are no guarantees.

The difference between a four-point escape from Northeastern Thursday night and a double-digit victory is emotion. Notre Dame was blue collar and focused in its NCAA Tournament victory over the Huskies.

The win, though, lacked pizzazz. It was the epitome of “win and advance.” Style points don’t matter.

The Irish have the talent to generate the dynamic plays and snowball the intensity. It might be difficult against a bunch of Bulldogs who boast a high basketball IQ (as experts say, though no one has ever come up with a tangible test), play a disciplined game, and thrive on ripping the heart out of an opponent with their defense.

After Notre Dame’s struggle against Miami in its first Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament game last week, the fire was lit and it burned all the way through to the title.

Getting to the Sweet 16 is even a bigger carrot to dangle for motivation.

“No one was satisfied with the way we played in the second half (against Miami, a 70-63 win),” said Connaughton. “That made us hungrier against Duke. It made us into the team we were becoming.”

The Irish have reached a point in the tournament where emotion should never be a factor.

“The intensity is going to be ratcheted up because of the tournament that we’re in,” Connaughton said. “Human nature takes over when you see ‘Duke’ on the front of a jersey; when you see ‘North Carolina.’

“Jerian and myself were just talking, ‘To get that Northeastern win, that’s as big a win as we’ve had.’

“Now you’re in the Round of 32. Now you’re playing an in-state rival; a team that will bring the intensity in and of itself. That’s going to benefit us.”

Given Notre Dame’s starved past in NCAA Tournaments gone by, and the “high” the Irish experienced last week, how can they keep from letting the moment overwhelm them?

“The competition will help us get (to the right place emotionally),” Grant said. “(The opportunity to go) to the Sweet 16 for the first time (since 2003) definitely means a lot for us.

“We have to make sure we play our game. At the same time, we want to make history, do something special, and go to the Sweet 16. Once we get into the game, we want to do what we do.”

Grant had trouble reaching an elite level of performance early in the Northeastern game. He struggled with the flow. A couple early turnovers. A few bad shots. He just didn’t look like one of the top players in America for the first few minutes.

“There were some jitters early on (Thursday night),” Grant said. “(The Northeastern defense) didn’t help our shooters at all. We really didn’t get any 3-point looks. Just being more aggressive, looking for my shot, was something I had to adjust to.

“It takes an adjustment. I’m good at attacking the basket. I’m good at creating my own shot. That’s just something I have to focus on when (the defense) is playing like that.”

He finished with 17 points, five assists, and a firm grip on a positive attitude going forward.

“Once the others see (me and Pat) play calm and confident, it will rub off to the rest of the team,” Grant said.

“This group, when the stakes got higher, the juices started flowing even better,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “It progressed all the way through Greensboro. That’s why I tried to make that comparison (with Miami) after the Northeastern game.

“Our guys, when they had to get big (defensive) stops, they got them. They believe it’s their time to do it.

“After what they did in Greensboro, there’s a confidence about this group; and a feel they can make a run in this thing.”

As long as they find the intensity in time.

Notre Dame guard Jerian Grant earned first team All-Atlantic Coast Conference honors Sunday.SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ