Seniors Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant

IRISH EXTRA: Irish Lean on Vets Grant and Connaughton

Jan. 4, 2015

As the horn sounded on Saturday’s first overtime, the University of Notre Dame men’s basketball team had missed four free throws down the stretch, saw a put-back bounce off the rim in the final second and faced another overtime session after Georgia Tech rallied from a six-point deficit in the extra session to force a second overtime.

How did the Fighting Irish react after taking a series of punches?

They laughed and smiled heading to the bench–and then they counter-punched.

Instead of being demoralized, Notre Dame dominated the second overtime against Georgia Tech to capture an 83-76 victory.

Coach Mike Brey’s Irish, ranked No. 14 by the Associated Press and No. 13 in the USA Today Coaches poll, improved to 14-1 overall and 2-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame plays at North Carolina at 7 p.m. EST Monday on ESPN.

By summoning up remarkable resiliency, Notre Dame walked off the court after an overtime battle as a winner for the eighth time in its last nine overtime games and for the second time this season. Notre Dame beat Michigan State 79-78 in overtime Dec. 3.

Since the 2010 season, Notre Dame has won 14 of its last 17 overtime contests.

“It’s confidence,” Notre Dame senior leader Jerian Grant said. “When we went to the bench for the first overtime, we were like, ‘This is our time. We love overtime.’ Second overtime, we said the same thing. We missed free throws, we missed a lay-up, but we went to the bench smiling and saying, `This is our time. We’re going to win this game.'”

Pressure has no place in the Irish mindset. Notre Dame counts on composure and character to rise to the top. The Irish don’t face the heat–they turn it up on opponents.

Grant said the key to Notre Dame’s overtime success begins with Brey setting the right tone.

“It all starts with Coach Brey,” Grant said. “He’s not nervous. He’s saying, `What are we going to do?’ He’s smiling and laughing, saying, ‘We’ll stay here until midnight to win if we have to.’ He gives a good vibe to the guys, and we carry that out onto the court.”

Irish captain Pat Connaughton said the team embraces the challenge of overtime and gets excited about the opportunity to play more “Irish tough” basketball.

“In some of the overtime games, including today, I don’t think we thought we played our best basketball in regulation,” Connaughton said. “When we get it to overtime, it’s almost like an extra boost. We’re like, `Let’s settle in, let’s have the energy and let’s play our Notre Dame brand of basketball.’ It was a grind today. We had to try and out-tough Georgia Tech. We stayed poised and we were willing to do what it takes to win.

“We have a tough group of guys in the locker room, all 13,” Connaughton said. “Everyone is a tough kid. Everyone wants to win. You couple that desire to win with the toughness that each and every one of those kids in the locker room has, and it’s tough to beat on any given night. I think that’s why we’ve had the success we’ve had, and why we were able to tough out the win against Georgia Tech.”

Connaughton came out firing in the second overtime, shaking off missing a pair of free throws with :34 left in the first overtime.

“The one thing about Pat–he was so mad about the free throws, he’s so competitive that he’s the kind of guy that’s going to answer back and try and win the game,” Brey said.

“So instead of driving it, he sticks the three, we run it again and he drives it and then he takes the one in front of the bench up six and I’m thinking, `Do I send him back to the Orioles?’ But I love the fearlessness.”

Connaughton said the hunger to win drives the Irish.

“You go 15-17 (in 2013-14) and then you can dig real deep, you find some plays you didn’t know you had,” Connaughton said.

Notre Dame’s balance is another key factor for overtime success. Steve Vasturia didn’t score in the first half, but he delivered big time in the second half and two overtimes, scoring 17 points. Connaughton scored five points in the first 40 minutes and five in the final 10.

“I think one thing that makes us so dangerous is we have guys that can get going at any time and I think it was just a matter of staying aggressive,” Connaughton said. “I just wanted to make the plays that were necessary in the second overtime to get the win for our team.”

“I feel like we really stayed together. When things aren’t always going the right way for us, shots aren’t falling, we just want to continue staying together and continue to be positive and tonight was one of those wins that will help us in the future.”

Brey has groomed a team that steps up in pressure situations, and he appreciates the leadership his players display in overtime.

“In a lot of those games we’ve had Jerian Grant as a great closer,” Brey said. “Demetrius Jackson is becoming a closer, and Pat Connaughton has been in a lot of those games.

“I would put a lot of it on Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant, not only what they do skill-wise, but on how they talk to our group,” Brey said. “We go into the huddle after regulation and they’re like, `Our time, overtime is our time.’ It was disappointing that we didn’t win it at the end of the first OT, with the layup and Zach’s put-back, but they were laughing, like, `All right, let’s win it in this one,’ and I think they’ve become very confident in OT. But a lot of it leans on Jerian and Pat.”

— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent