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Thursday, June 13, 2024
The Observer

Monaco: Pat Connaughton, Jerian Grant lead Notre Dame to Sweet 16

He told Steve Vasturia to stay ready.

He told Zach Auguste to let it go.

He told himself not tonight.

Down six points midway through the second half of Saturday’s round of 32 matchup with No. 6 seed Butler and with his shot not falling, Irish senior Pat Connaughton picked up No. 3 seed Notre Dame with his words.

Jerian Grant, Notre Dame’s other senior leader, told sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson to stay level-headed, to calm down.

Together, Connaughton and Grant took Notre Dame where it hasn’t been since 2003. The Irish (31-5, 14-4 ACC) advanced to the Sweet 16 in the Midwest Region with a 67-64 win over the Bulldogs on Saturday night at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

“They do such a great job of leading us,” Jackson said. “They keep us all calm. Maybe if they weren’t out there we would almost have a meltdown.”

Notre Dame avoided just that Saturday and, in the process, sidestepped the same fate of so many recent Irish squads that have been bounced early from NCAA tournament play. Notre Dame had lost to lower-seeded opponents in 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010.

Vasturia missed a wide-open jumper with the shot clock winding down and Notre Dame still trailing in the second half. Connaughton told him the ball would swing around to him again.

“Be ready to shoot,” he told the sophomore.

Auguste hauled in a defensive rebound and charged up court, only to turn it over in the final seconds of regulation with a double dribble. Ever emotional, Auguste clutched his hands on his head. Connaughton pulled his teammates aside during and after the successive timeout.

Zach Auguste and Pat Connaughton near the end of overtime
Kevin Sabitus | The Observer
Zach Auguste and Pat Connaughton near the end of overtime

“Zach, there is nothing we can do to bring that back,” he told the junior.

And after missing his first five 3-point tries, the ball rotated to Connaughton in the right corner in overtime. He buried the triple.

“Not tonight,” he said, jogging back on defense.

No, not Saturday. Notre Dame didn’t cave in the second half. Connaughton coupled his 3-pointer with a blocked shot at the end of regulation to ensure overtime. Grant did his part with a crucial drive to the basket to lift Notre Dame ahead by five with 18 seconds remaining.

“We’ve been in games like this all season,” Grant said. “So we really stay even-keeled, and it really shows.”

Their leadership does too. Connaughton cited the Derek Jeter-inspired mantra of his father, Len, after the game.

“Winners win.”

Asked about the play of his senior captain, Brey didn’t hesitate.

“Killer. Killer,” he said. “What a winner. What a winner.”

“We weren’t ready to go home tonight,” Connaughton added.

Even when calls and bounces went against the Irish — a blocking call against Grant drew the ire of the Irish bench, for example — they moved on to the next play.

“There were some guys who were frustrated about the mistakes we had made,” Connaughton said. “But I said to them, ‘Look, that’s dead and gone.’ … The beautiful thing about it is, we have complete control over the outcome of this game.”

And control it, they did. Grant and Connaughton combined for 23 points, below their season averages and just three points more than the 20 poured in by Vasturia. Their impact, though, spreads beyond the box score.

“Their leadership has definitely carried us throughout the whole season,” sophomore forward Austin Torres said. “We’ve been riding them the whole time. We’re really excited for them because they didn’t have to come back this year. They decided to, and we’re really excited for next week.”