Notre Dame is rolling — right into the history books.
For the first time in 37 years, the Fighting Irish are headed to the Elite Eight after knocking off NCAA Tournament darling Wichita State 91-70.
Led by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson’s 20 points and senior forward Pat Connaughton’s 16 points and 10 rebounds, three-seed Notre Dame downed the Shockers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday night.
“We really do a great job sharing the ball, finding a great shot every possession,” said Jackson postgame. “The guys step up and make huge shots. It’s a really fun way to play when we play the game that way so we want to continue doing that and continue getting better.”
In a total-team effort, Notre Dame (32-5) proved to be too much for gritty seventh-seeded Wichita State (30-5). The sharpshooting Irish drilled an astounding 75 percent of their shots in the second half (18-of-24).
After winning 11 of their last 12 games, the Shockers found themselves down by as many as 13 in the first half; however, the Shockers responded with a 15-5 run of their own, cutting the Irish lead to 33-30 going into the intermission.
Wichita State junior guard Fred VanVleet’s game-high 25 points and senior forward Darius Carter’s 20 were not enough to allow the Shockers to escape with a victory.
The nation’s most efficient offense in Notre Dame is now 26-2 when leading at halftime and 19-0 when scoring 80 points in a game.
“That was reminiscent of a lot of games we’ve been in, second halfs, it kind of reminded me of the North Carolina game in the ACC championship, we take the lead, call timeout, not a lot of drama, not a lot of strategy, and we come out of that with a great will, continue to defend and then we got into one of our offensive rhythms that nobody else in the country can do,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.
A mentality shift at halftime proved to be the difference for the Fighting Irish, who scored 40 points in the second half.
Senior guard Jerian Grant added nine points and 11 assists of his own while advancing to the regional final. The Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy finalist has played every minute of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament run this season.
“Just figuring how they were playing me, it took longer than I would have liked but once I figured out how they were guarding the ball screens and denying me up top, we really got into a rhythm to play our game,” said Grant about his team’s second half success.
In critical moments late in the second half, Connaughton hit a 3-pointer from the corner and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia made a 3-point jumper of his own moments later to seal the victory, stretching Notre Dame’s lead from 11 to 17, 73-56, with 5:18 remining.
The Irish made nine 3-pointers, with Jackson drilling 4-of-5 from downtown.
“Extremely important,” said Connaughton of what that stretch meant to the outcome of the game. “We always talk about not being satisfied, whether it’s with a win or whether it’s just a possession in general.
“For us to not be satisfied with an 11 point lead because there was so much time left, they’re a fabulous team and they make runs and they can score in bunches just like us. We want to make sure that we continue to play our game, and when you have an open shot, you know with these two guys to my left and right, they’re the best at finding you and getting you open shots so you just have to step up and knock them down.”
Connaughton, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system has now played 138 games for the Fighting Irish, setting a school record.
Notre Dame defeated Northeastern and Butler by a combined seven points during the opening weekend of the tournament, where expectations have been high for Coach Brey’s team, even coming off a 15-17 season last year.
The 2014-15 ACC champion Fight Irish will play perennial favorite and unbeaten Kentucky on Saturday night in the regional final.
To beat the powerhouse – a consensus choice as one of the best college teams ever – and move onto their first Final Four appearance since 1978, Brey says he will continue to do what he has done throughout the season.
“One of the biggest qualities is do not overcoach your team when they’re rolling. Don’t call out too many — let them figure it out. This nucleus really knows how to play on the offensive end.”
PITTSBURGH – Notre Dame’s Zach Auguste showed off his off-season development with 25 points in a 69-65 win over Northeastern in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Where was the source for that development? In gyms – for multiple sports – throughout the Huskies’ home of Boston.
Auguste, a 6-10 center for the Fighting Irish, has the Greater Boston Area in his blood.
The half Greek junior was born in Cambridge before moving around different parts of Boston and finally settled in Marlborough when he was 7-years-old.
He grew up seeing Harvard, BU, BC and Northeastern play and those are the gyms he works out in in between seasons.
“It was kind of diverse,” Auguste said. “It was pretty much just all of us Boston guys just coming out working hard together.”
Kansas’s Wayne Selden Jr., BC’s Olivier Hanlan, Harvard’s Kyle Casey, BU’s Blaise Mbargorma, joined Auguste in the workouts.
The pick-up games also gave Auguste a preview of Northeastern center Scott Eatherton, who he went toe-to-toe with on Thursday.
“I was pretty confident going in,” Auguste said. “I knew a lot about his game, as well as he knew a lot about mine so we just wanted to go head to head.”
But matching up with future opponents wouldn’t be enough for Auguste to improve from his 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game. Auguste also needed to improve his physical features and knew boxing could lead to peak conditioning.
“There’s a lot of mental focus in it,” Auguste said. “It helps obviously with my conditioning as well but I think it just uses the best of my ability, where I can just work on all of my physical features.”
So one day this past summer, Auguste, Casey and Selden Jr. walked into Peter Welch’s Gym in South Boston and started training.
“Guys were looking at us like at us like ‘Jeez, you guys are big,” Auguste said. “Other than that everyone was just cool with it.”
And now, even though he broke some Bostonian hearts by sending the Huskies running, Auguste still has the Welch trainers, Marlborough high school coach Illya Nicholas and his East Coast friends and family in his mind as he gets ready to take on Butler tomorrow.
Some of them are thinking of him too.
“It was a very big deal that they reached out,” Auguste said. “I was very blessed to hear from a lot of people back home.”
Long before the six-figure signing bonus, before hearing his name announced on draft day, before the Sports Center highlights, and before setting the basketball world on fire with one of the greatest weeks in recent AAU history, Pat Connaughton was a kid with what seemed like an impossible dream.
It was a dream that he started working towards as a young child on the weed-strewn ball fields and stuffy, dimply lit gyms of his hometown, a blue-collar city that sits six miles northwest of Boston. And it was a dream fostered by his hometown, long before he was a household name – a city that will forever be a part of him.
And in case there were any doubts about where Connaughton comes from, and where his heart will always lie no matter where baseball and basketball take him, Connaughton let the swarm of waiting reporters know as he emerged from the visiting locker room. It was stitched across his chest as he held court in the bowels of Conte Forum: Arlington, Massachusetts.
“It’s my home, it’s hard to put into words what it means other than it made me who I am,” said Connaughton after leading his Notre Dame Fighting Irish over host Boston College, 87-70, Saturday evening.
Connaughton has metaphorically worn Arlington on his sleeve every step of his journey from his hometown to South Bend, Indiana, and on to the professional baseball ranks for the past four years, and his hometown returned the gesture in kind Saturday, with many of the 500-plus supporters who turned out to cheer him on Saturday wearing the town’s name across their shirts, jackets, and hoodies.
It has been a busy year for Connaughton. After finishing the 2013-14 basketball season, a year where he averaged 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds as a 6’5” tweener forward, he moved into his final season of college baseball and flat out dominated, before being drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the fourth round of the MLB draft, and spent the middle of his summer suiting up for the Aberdeen IronBirds, the Orioles short-season affiliate, just up I-95 in from Camden Yards.
(Author’s note: I, in fact, saw Connaughton pitch on two occasions during my time with the Brooklyn Cyclones).
Like many other pitchers on the IronBirds staff, Connaughton was fresh off his college season and was on a strict, short pitch count, throwing little more than an inning or two during outings.
However, that did not stop him from shining, as he finished his first season of pro ball with a 2.45 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 14 2/3 innings of work.
The highlight of Connaughton’s first season as a pro came on July 5, against the Brooklyn Cyclones on “Seinfeld Night” at MCU Park before 8,241 fans – some of whom began lining up for tickets at 10 a.m – when he used his lightening bolt for a right arm to pitch two perfect innings, striking out three.
It was a performance that impressed several of the hardened scouts in attendence, but one that came as no surprise to his college basketball coach, Mike Brey.
“He’s a flat out stud,” says Brey.
After his final appearance on the professional mound on July 29, Connaughton went right back to Notre Dame in preparation for basketball season and the team’s trip overseas. In his 28 years coaching, Brey has seen just about everything in the game, but even Brey was impressed by how effortless Connaughton made the transition seem.
“He would come from baseball this past summer to our workouts before we went on our foreign tour, and after one day it looked like he was playing basketball all summer,” says Brey. “I mean he is an amazingly gifted athlete. You put that psyche, that determination, and he’s just a winner.”
But Connaughton isn’t one to brag about going from the diamond to the hardwood and back: It’s a transition he’s been making since he was a grade schooler, spending summer days on Arlington’s little league fields and nights suiting up in the town’s small Fidelity House gymnasium.
“I’ve had a lot of practice with it, 22 years of practice. Basically ever since I can remember I’ve been playing both,” he says. “It’s always kind of been that way where I was playing basketball all the time, and then I’ve got to train for baseball like nothing’s changed. That’s something that I’ve been fortunate enough to, as a kid, play sports 24/7, no matter what it is.”
Now nearing the final lap of his college basketball career, Connaughton and the Irish are currently ranked 10th in the country, sitting at 24-12 overall and 12-3 in ACC play. After defeating a Boston College team that has struggled this season, Connaughton took a step back and was able to enjoy the victory and meaning behind it.
“It was awesome,” says Connaughton. “Obviously there’s a lot stuff when you come home, especially for us three guys from [Massachusetts],” he says, referencing teammates Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson. “But at the end of the day it’s all about getting the win, all about taking care of business when it’s in front of you.”
There was plenty of “stuff” outside of the game itself going on during Saturday’s contest. Boston Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge — who reportedly “loves” Connaughton, a dual baseball-basketball threat just like Ainge during his playing days — was in attendance, joining the throngs of fans who were intently watching Connaughton’s every move.
“Everything he is around is good,”Brey says. “There’s good vibes coming off of him. There was 500 people in the place tonight to see him, isn’t he the mayor here? The vice mayor or something?”
Connaughton’s athletic ability has been apparent since he set the recruiting scene on fire back in the summer of 2010 when he dominated the AAU national tournament in Orlando, Florida, as a rising high school senior. Before then, Connaughton was a highly sought after pitching prospect, regularly touching the mid-90s on the guns, but almost completely unrecruited in basketball, with Division II Bentley University standing as his only basketball offer. Connaughton’s career path changed when he announced his presence to the basketball world in Orlando, the exclamation point coming in the form of a 33-point 20-rebound effort against some of the best players in the nation.
From that day forward, everyone knew of Connaughton’s special athletic abilities, but according to Brey, the senior’s leadership has been even more impressive than his ability to rip rebounds away from far larger opponents, nail contested 3-pointers, and hammer home rim-rocking dunks.
“He has been the ultimate leader and captain for us,” says Brey. “Pat’s the major voice and having Pat back to kind of set the tone, he has helped all of those young guys — [Demetrius] Jackson, even Auguste as a new starter, Colson, [V.J.] Beachem, [Steve] Vasturia — he’s helped all of those guys get more confident.”
Connaughton credits his experiences playing both sports, and learning to mesh with so many different personalities in each locker room, with his growth as a leader.
“You have to grow up quick when you play two sports in college,” says Connaughton. “You have to do the academics like Notre Dame requires, you got to learn how to time manage, how to deal with personalities in the baseball locker room when there’s 35 kids and in the basketball locker room when there’s 12 or 13. I think that’s really helped me. It helped me grow in the leadership role and just grow overall learning how to time manage and take it day by day.”
According to coaches and teammates, Connaughton leads by level-headed example.
“We’ve had a lot of great senior leaders, none better than Pat Connaughton,” says Brey. “He’s a special one.”
Connaughton’s immediate sights are squarely set on the final ACC and NCAA Tournaments of his career. But it’s when the final horn sounds, and he pulls off his college jersey for the final time, that things become blurry.
The Orioles own his rights for the next six seasons, and most scouts agree that his rocket for a right arm remains his calling card. Meanwhile, NBA scouts see him as having skills that translate to the next level — 3-point shooting, toughness and athleticism — but as a role player and potential second round draft pick, a much longer road to the kind of paydays he could enjoy in baseball.
But presented with two divergent roads, Connaughton seems set on carving his own, independent path, and trying to become the first mainstream American multi-sport athlete since the days of Bo Jackson and Deon Sanders.
“After this we’re going to see how basketball goes,” says Connaughton. “I’m going to see how far I can take that and we’ll decide at the end of the year.
“It’s up to me to focus on Notre Dame basketball, and after that it’s up to me to work my tail off for a month, two months, whatever it may be before the draft to see how far I can take this thing and get the right fit.”
And according to his head coach, no matter what path Connaughton ultimately walks, he’s going to continue to be a special kind of star.
“Now I’m an Orioles fan so I’m a little torn here,” Brey says. “I don’t want to lose a heck of a pitcher, but he’s always handled playing both at Notre Dame on his terms. He hasn’t panicked. He’s thought it through, his family has been great, and we talked about it the other day; I think he methodically goes through it and explores it.”
Battling the flu while taking the court against his hometown Eagles, Connaughton posted one of his more modest stat lines of the night, finishing with eight points, four rebounds and an assist. The stat line didn’t matter to Connaughton.
“It was a great day,” he says, simply, of the weekend, in which he visited his home town, watching a practice at Fidelity House the night before taking the floor at Conte.
And as throngs of family and friends remained in the empty arena an hour after the final horn had sounded to greet their native son, with Connaughton seeming to embrace each and every one of them, it was apparent that no matter what he ultimately chooses to do in life, Arlington will always have his back.