Pat Connaughton leads the Irish in rebounding with a career-best 8.3 rebounds per game.

IRISH EXTRA: Connaughton Lights the Irish Fire

Dec. 28, 2014

When a loose ball bounced toward the corner near the Notre Dame baseline during Monday’s men’s basketball game against Northern Illinois, Fighting Irish captain Pat Connaughton dived headfirst, reaching his arm out while airborne to try and smack the ball inbounds to a teammate.

Connaughton landed, skin screeching across the hard maple court, as he headed straight into the courtside seats at the University of Notre Dame’s Purcell Pavilion. It would have been another floor burn for Connaughton, but he’s beyond that stage.

“By this time, all of my skin is a callous, so it really doesn’t matter,” Connaughton said after leading the Irish to a 91-66 victory against Northern Illinois.

Notre Dame’s court commander has the Fighting Irish rolling with a 12-1 record headed into Tuesday’s 7:30 p.m. EST matchup against Hartford. Connaughton’s efforts have helped Notre Dame jump up to a No. 16 national ranking and poised to be a power player in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Whether it’s swishing a three, scoring over a taller opponent with a turnaround baseline skyhook or emerging from a fray in the lane with a rebound, Connaughton has helped the Irish pack a punch this season. His double-doubles in the past two games have helped Notre Dame deck Purdue and Northern Illinois. Connaughton scored 19 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to help the Irish hammer the Boilermakers 94-63. He finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds in Notre Dame’s 25-point rout of Northern Illinois.

Averaging 13.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, Connaughton has been a key factor in the Irish leading the nation in field-goal shooting (55.6 percent), and ranking fifth in the nation in scoring (86.1 points a game). Connaughton leads the Irish with 34 three-pointers, yet despite taking so many shots from long range he hits 49 percent of those.

And, although the 6-foot-5 senior from Arlington, Mass., usually battles 6-foot-9 inside players for rebounds, Connaughton leads the Irish with 8.3 rebounds a game and ranks 16th in the nation with 7.0 defensive rebounds a game.

“I think it’s a combination of toughness and talent,” Irish coach Mike Brey said of how Connaughton is able to contribute in so many different ways. “You’re talking about a great athlete, the way he bounces. But then he’s got a toughness and a nose and a relentlessness. We’re spoiled watching him and I’m spoiled coaching him.

“That’s one guy you miss when he’s gone, because he’s the same every day,” Brey continued about Connaughton. “His demeanor is great every day. He’s upbeat. We’re going to need that demeanor, because it’s not going to be all parades when we start the ACC season. There are going to be some tough nights.”

Irish center Zach Auguste looked at Connaughton’s stat line after the Irish hounded the Huskies and marveled.

“Pat just has a great all-around game,” Auguste said. “We call him the silent assassin. You think he’s having a quiet game, and then you look at the stats and he has 21 points and 10 rebounds. He’s great at shooting the ball, he makes great decisions and helps on the glass. He’s not afraid to bang against a big. Almost every time, he’s matched up against a guy who’s 6-8 or 6-9. He’s a tough guy. We can always rely on him to be consistent. He always gets the job done.”

Connaughton’s grit gives him a no-fear demeanor that helps him get the best of bigger opponents.

“It’s a knack for the ball,” Connaughton said. “That’s something I’ve always prided myself on to affect the game–rebounding. It’s something where I can always have an affect on the game. Charles Barkley was great at it. He was an under-sized big. I don’t think I’m necessarily a big man, but a guard who can rebound is valuable in any offense.

“I always wanted to dunk. Jumping is always something I worked on when I was a kid. I wanted to have some athleticism that a lot of kids didn’t have. When I read where a shot is going to come off the rim, when I think it’s going to be short or long, left or right, I’m able to get there, and I’m able to jump off the ground faster and higher than the people around me. Once I get my hands on the ball, I don’t usually let go.”

Steve Vasturia, a sophomore guard, said Connaughton is valuable in so many different areas, but his leadership in particular stands out.

“Pat does all of the little things, but he can also score the ball,” Vasturia said. “Some people might say he’s an under-sized forward, but he averages about 10 rebounds a game. He plays his heart out. He’s a leader for us. Everybody looks for him. He brings it 100 percent every time we step on the court and we follow him. He works hard and puts the time in off the court and he executes. He puts out a lot of effort.”

Connaughton has a leader’s instinct. He knows when to encourage, when to exhort and when the Irish need a laugh.

“Pat has a great sense of humor,” Brey said. “He keeps my assistant coaches loose. When (assistant) Coach (Anthony) Solomon gets a little uptight, Pat can say something to him and loosen him up. He’s the only guy who can get away with that. He has a great way about him, and I think that sense of humor has been good in heated games. UMass, we’re not playing well early, that personality helps in the timeouts and on the floor. Michigan State, the whole night, ‘We’re fine … we’ve got it … we’ll be all right.’ We’re going to really need that in January, February and March.”

Brey said the Irish will rely on Connaughton for leadership as they look to put ACC heavyweights against the ropes.

“I talked to him a bunch in the spring and the summer about it,” Brey said of Connaughton leading the Irish. “Even as an underclassman, he underestimated how powerful his voice would be and how loved and respected he is. I think he understands that. I’ve been very proud of him and what he’s done.”

Connaughton said he focused on becoming a better leader for this season.

“Leadership is something I wanted to fix coming off last season,” Connaughton said. “At times last season I let myself down in the leadership category based off my ability to successfully affect the team. If I wasn’t playing well, my voice went down. This season, there have been games where I haven’t played well, but I won’t let the leadership role stop. I think that helps affect the team in a positive way.”

Connaughton’s efforts have been impressive considering he was on a pitcher’s mound, rather than a basketball court, for most of the spring and summer. The right-handed pitcher who lights up radar guns at 95 miles an hour shined in the Orioles’ minor league organization after a full baseball season for Notre Dame. He had an impressive 2.45 earned-run average in 14.2 innings pitched, striking out 10 and only walking three.

“He’s unique,” Brey said of Connaughton. “In the second practice for Italy (Notre Dame’s late summer basketball tour), it looked like he had been with us all summer. I think he was sneaking out and playing basketball when he was with the Orioles, but I’m not going to tell anybody. He’s a fabulous athlete to be able to do that and handle that and get back in the swing of things. It’s a unique psyche. And what a great ambassador he’s been for our university. He’s one of the best we’ve ever had.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent