Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant go out in style for Notre Dame hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – They knew that they would be tied together from the start of a six-month college basketball odyssey all the way through, no matter when or where or how it might end.

Once it unofficially did Monday with the annual “Evening of Notre Dame Basketball” it was only fitting that seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant shared the night's highest honor.

Both were named Notre Dame Monogram Club most valuable players after driving the Irish to a 32-6 record, their most wins since 1908-09.

“It's really been a great journey,” Grant said during his senior speech.

The two took being senior leaders to a whole new level, one that has seldom been seen in recent memory around a program that athletic director Jack Swarbrick said soared from good to great this season. It saw the Irish go from 6-12 in their first season in the Atlantic Coast Conference to a school-record tying 14-4 mark this winter.

The leadership of Connaughton and Grant were reasons 1 and 1A.

“I have rarely been around two better than Pat and Jerian,” Swarbrick said in his opening remarks.

Players in coach Mike Brey's program are required to be more than just basketball players. They're ambassadors. For the school. For college athletics. For doing it the right way. Connaughton and Grant did just that this season.

“I don't know if we've had two better than these two,” Brey said.

Brey classified Grant's return for his fifth year as the “greatest story in college basketball.” He told the tale of recruiting the then-17-year-old Grant from his alma mater – DeMatha (Md.) Catholic High School – and how the kid who had trouble looking people in the eye while mumbling more than a few words never really officially committed to him during the visit.

Both just kind of decided that Notre Dame was right without any official word.

Brey finally got that word Monday when he asked Grant to step to the microphone and recite the phrase he never did hear back at their high school alma mater.

“I'm committed to Notre Dame,” Grant said to another round of applause.

Grant was driven this season to dominate. Connaughton shared a story of Grant admitting during one of the team's players-only meetings in preseason that one of his personal goals was to earn Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. He finished second to Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor. Despite saying all the right words to the media last month, it was something that didn't sit well with Grant, so much so that he returned to the gym around midnight on the day of the announcement – and the day before the Irish traveling party embarked for the ACC tournament in Greensboro, N.C., – to work out his frustrations and work up a serious sweat.

On his way home from a night of bowling with sophomore teammate Steve Vasturia, Connaughton swung by Purcell Pavilion, noticed Grant's car parked by the arena receiving door, and popped into the Pit practice facility as Grant was changing the music on his ever-present boom box.

Connaughton wondered if Grant was bothered by not winning ACC player of the year.

Yeah, Grant admitted, but that would drive him even more to rip through the field in Greensboro – which include Okafor – and leave with an ACC tournament championship.

That trophy had its own place Monday night on the stage near sophomore Austin Torres.

“He could have taken 20 shots a game if he wanted to,” Connaughton said of Grant. “Winning was most important to him.”

As it was to Connaughton. It also was important to do it with Grant. Prior to the ACC quarterfinal game against Miami (Fla.), Connaughton called on Grant to join him at midcourt for the usual pregame meeting with the game officials. The conference is generally reserved only for captains, something Grant had long longed to be at Notre Dame but could not following an academic misstep that cost him the spring semester of his senior year in 2014.

Grant joined Connaughton at center court before the first of three Irish victories in three nights to win the school's first-ever ACC tournament championship.

“For him to ask me to do that meant a lot to me,” Grant said. “I didn't know if I would get in trouble for that.”

Grant went on to win ACC tournament most valuable player.

That weekend served as the jumping-off point of a postseason run that saw Notre Dame get within one win of the its first Final Four since 1978.

“I hope that this season was memorable enough that we did make you proud,” Connaughton told the audience to wrap up a senior speech that lasted 27 minutes, 26 seconds.

Connaughton also earned the Notre Dame Club of St. Joseph Valley Rockne Student-Athlete award. Other awards included Outstanding Playmaker (Demetrius Jackson); Most Improved Player (Zach Auguste); Newcomer of the Year (Bonzie Colson) and Defensive Player of the Year (Steve Vasturia).

Monday saw the largest crowed ever to attend the fourth-annual event where inside looks at the team's facilities and up-close meetings and greetings with the players and coaching staff have replaced the traditional sit-down dinner banquet of rubber chicken, cake and coffee.

A year ago, when the Irish finished 15-17 with no postseason since 1999, a conservative estimate put the number of attendees at 200. On Monday, that number swelled to more than 600.

Last year's event ran 47 minutes and carried with it a feel that it just couldn't end soon enough. Monday's event lasted an hour and 39 minutes. Afterward, when the ACC tournament championship banner was unfurled following a five-minute highlight video looking back on a season for the ages, it seemed that nobody wanted the night to end.

Just like the season.

“For 30 days in March, it was one of the greatest runs ever,” Brey said.

One that took its toll on all involved. Brey admitted late Monday that he had trouble just seeing straight and standing up by the time the Kentucky game ended. He was running on absolute fumes and near exhaustion. He still doesn't feel quite right even now, over two weeks removed.

Not long after the loss to Kentucky, Brey's text messaging system malfunctioned on his cell phone. The timing couldn't have been better. It offered him a chance to finally exhale after as draining a postseason run as he's ever experienced.

“We emptied the tank; that's all you could ask,” Brey said. “The nation was captured by it.”

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