Pat Conaughton - "The Captain"

IRISH EXTRA: ACC Celebration Short-Lived, Now It's on to the NCAAs

March 16, 2015

Jerian Grant sat at a table in Club Naimoli facing the video board that hangs over the basketball court at the University of Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion.

Grant wore an Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball tournament champions hat emblazoned with the famous Notre Dame interlocking ND logo, and a net cut down from the rims at the Greensboro Coliseum was draped over the senior captain’s neck.

Fresh from leading Notre Dame to the school’s first conference tournament championship in men’s basketball, Grant savored the moment of spending Selection Sunday with his Fighting Irish teammates.

“This is the memory of a lifetime,” said Grant, who was waiting for the NCAA selection show to pop onto the screen. “This is what we envisioned at the start of our season. We wanted to be back in the NCAA tournament as the ACC champs. We know we’re going to be in the tournament, so we’re just enjoying this party. There’s no stress for us. We’re just anxious to find out who we play so we can get back to work.”

Grant and his teammates, the Irish coaching and support staff and selected season ticket holders gathered at Club Naimoli to bask in the glow of the ACC Tournament title, take selfies with the trophy and find out where Notre Dame would begin its quest for NCAA glory.

Coach Mike Brey’s Irish (29-5) were awarded a No. 3 seed by the NCAA selection committee and take on Northeastern (23-11) at 12:15 p.m. EDT Thursday in Pittsburgh. If the Irish win, they play on Saturday against either Butler (22-10) or Texas (20-13).

“It’s a little bit like Christmas morning,” Notre Dame assistant coach Martin Ingelsby said of the aura of a Selection Sunday gathering. “There are some nerves, seeing where we’re going to go, who we’re going to play.”

For Ingelsby, once the announcement is made, it’s go time for him and the other Irish coaches.

“Once that bracket comes up, we get to work as soon as we can as far as breaking down film and splitting up scouting assignments, because it comes quick,” Ingelsby said. “There’s a software that we use online called Synergy Sports, that has basically every college basketball game broken down. We’ll get on that right away. We’ll meet as a staff (Sunday night), and then we’ll meet again first thing Monday morning.”

For the players, the Selection Sunday party was another special moment in a whirlwind of events that began with the first round of the ACC Tournament Thursday night. Confetti showered the players on Saturday night after the Fighting Irish wrapped up an amazing march to the championship that included victories against ACC veterans Duke and North Carolina. Then there was a plane trip back to South Bend, with the wheels touching the runaway around 3 a.m. After a few hours sleep, the Irish were ready to embrace the NCAA selection.

“It’s still hard to grasp that we’ve come so far,” junior post Zach Auguste said. “It’s been a great experience. This is a very special team, and I love each one of my brothers. I’m so glad I can share these experiences with them. This is something we’ll all carry with us for life. We’re the first ones to win a (men’s basketball conference tournament) championship for Notre Dame.

“This moment is amazing,” Auguste continued. “Nobody believed in us, nobody gave us a chance. It’s a testament to our hard work. Now, we’re ready to get back to work, to practice hard and to play in the NCAA tournament. We’re not done yet. We’re not satisfied. We’re ready to carry the momentum from the ACC tournament into the NCAA.”

Freshman Bonzie Colson said the party atmosphere of the Irish watch party was everything he imagined it would be, recalling the scenes he watched as a youngster during past NCAA Selection Sunday shows. Colson was quick to point out that the Irish couldn’t let the party feelings linger.

“Winning the ACC championship, being blessed to be the first team to win a conference championship (in men’s basketball) for Notre Dame, enjoying a watch party with our teammates and fans, those are special memories of their own, but now we have to focus on Northeastern,” Colson said. “We have goals for the NCAA tournament, and we’re locked in on those.

“This was a fun atmosphere, to sit down with everybody and watch the announcements, see all of the selections. We were all eager to see who we were going to play. It’s a great opportunity for us. We’re all very focused now to work hard and do well in the NCAA tournament.”

Brey’s club played big-time basketball last week in Greensboro, and the Irish will take their momentum as ACC champions into the NCAA Championship.

Senior captain Pat Connaughton enjoyed the opportunity to be part of a watch party and see the smiles on the faces of teammates and fans, just as he loved seeing the joy on the Irish flight home after cutting down the nets in Greensboro.

“One of the things I cherish more than anything, obviously I wanted to win it for our school and all that sort of stuff. But when you look at the people around the program, wearing the hats, sitting on the plane, they have waited so long to be part of something like this, and they weren’t even playing. But they gave us support behind the scenes that no one really notices, beside the guys that are involved, and they got to share that with us on the floor and get a T-shirt, a hat, and be part of something this big that’s historic in Notre Dame basketball history,” Connaughton said. “That’s the thing that made me the most happy. It makes you want to win not just for each other but for them and to share a moment like that was huge.”

And with the way the Irish have been playing, there will be more special moments for Connaughton and his teammates to share with Notre Dame fans.

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent