O'Malley's Key Three

Two of the nation's best -- teams and individual players -- duked it out on the Joyce Center Floor Wednesday night in a 77-73 Irish victory over the Blue Devils.

There's no question mark attached to the heading above for good reason.

Junior Troy Murphy was excellent. Ditto sophomore Luke Harangody and fifth-year senior Ben Hansbrough. None compare to Grant, the 5th-year senior and best basketball player on the floor Wednesday night in a game that included the best professional prospect in the college game.

Grant produced a game-high 23 points and a career-high 12 assists to go with six boards, three steals, and two blocked shots -- both of which negated Duke layups in the final minute.

And of course, the nation's top playmaker provided the game's decisive play: a back-down, end-of-shot-clock pass to the court's only open player, Steve Vasturia. The Irish sophomore swingman drilled a corner three that stretched Notre Dame's lead from one to four, 76-72, with 21 seconds remaining.

"I just took what they gave me," said Grant of defender Quin Cook. "I knew I could get off a shot, I kind of turned my back and I was going to shoot a fadeaway. Then I got up in the air and Steve was wide open in the corner."

It was the sophomore's first bucket of the contest, one Grant fittingly followed three seconds later with a leaping blocked shot of a Cook layup attempt at the other end.

Grant does it at both ends, but he's dominant with the ball in his hands. Among his 12 assists were 28 created points (four led to three-point shots). 51 of Notre Dame's 77 points originated from his hands.

"He's got a big basketball IQ. He knows our sets, he knows our system," said head coach Mike Brey of his trust in Grant. "God he loves the moment. He is such a bright lights, big stage guy. He's really clutch."

When does a interior tandem "hold its own" against an opposing center whose final stat line shows 22 points and 17 rebounds?

When that foe is future No. 1 NBA Draft pick Jahlil Okafor, defended as well as could be expected Wednesday by junior Zach Auguste and recent call-up to the now seven-man rotation, Bonzie Colson.

"He's a kid with emotion. He shows it in practice, he shows it in the locker room, and he shows it on the floor," said Irish senior captain Pat Connaughton, whose 12 rebounds helped keep the Blue Devils at bay on the boards. "I said to him before the game, 'Look, we're going to need the energy you bring, but on a whole other level tonight.' I think he really bought into that."

According to Brey, Colson buys into anything asked of him.

"I told Bonz this yesterday in practice, 'In Georgia Tech, you got one bloody nose. You may need to get two or three (vs. Duke). Can I count on you?' He said, 'No problem coach, no problem.'

"He knows he can be physical, but his length and his quickness -- he was always around (Okafor).

While the Irish true freshman provided a spark -- along with eight points on five shots with three boards and a block -- it was Auguste whow was the difference-maker on the other end in what could have been a one-sided affair against a bigger, stronger, more polished, and perhaps quicker foe.

His stat line shows 14 points, six rebounds, a pair of assists and a blocked shot in 22 minutes. After giving ground early, Auguste decided to attack.

"It was tough, we had to get a feel for him. He's probably the No. 1 draft pick," said Auguste of Okafor's early-game success. "We came out with heart, then started to execute our game plan in the second half. I had to be aggressive. We had to have some type of post presence as well. We couldn't let him do all the work.

"We (he and Colson) went in together, focused, and did what we had to do to help the team win."

The nation's second-most accurate shot-maker (67.1 percent), Okafor hit 10 of 18 Wednesday night, 12 percent below his season average.

Colson's efforts to that end were less revolutionary in thought than battle-tested throughout the sport's history.

"Just hit him first," Colson offered of his approach vs. Okafor. "Grind out possessions with him. Keep working hard on him. It was a battle, but I just took the punches he threw at me and had to grind it out."

The Irish interior duo recorded 22 points and nine boards in 39 game minutes. A repeat effort would equate to a chance at a repeat end result nine days from now in Durham when the teams tip-off again.

"We discovered something the week Zach was out in Bonzie Colson and it is a key, key piece to our team right now," said Brey.

As the final seconds ticked away and Duke's four-point deficit proved impossibly to overcome, the Notre Dame student section began it's inevitable approach. It was time to storm the court.

Instead, the game's MVP intervened.

Jerian Grant held up two hands -- the universal stop sign -- instructing his delirious classmates to celebrate in their seats rather than on the playing floor.

The indomitable Grant knows rushing the court should be reserved for underdogs, and while Notre Dame overcame odds Wednesday night, one of them wasn't a disparity in overall college basketball ability between the victorious hosts and the blue bloods from Durham.

Trailing 65-55 with 10:59 remaining, Notre Dame held Duke to 2 of 12 shooting over the game's final ten minutes -- a 22-8 run closed it out.

"I don't know if they did anything specifically, they just played hard," said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski of Notre Dame's defensive efforts late. "I don't think either one of us had this unbelievable strategy as much as they do what they do and we try to do what we do.

"They did it a little bit better."

In a game of breaks and a matchup decided by seconds, not minutes, Notre Dame made the most of the former and didn't blink during the decisive latter.

"That one absolutely lived up to the hype," said Brey. "Two really good teams going at it…I think we can continue to get better. It's February, and we're still getting better."

This collection of Irish, Brey's 15th as head coach, might be one more large-body contributor away from elite status -- Final Four contention -- but they're also proving to be among the sport's toughest outs.

Six times they've trailed by 10 points or more in the last seven contests -- five times they've prevailed. They've won wire-to-wire at #13 North Carolina (7-1 in ACC play) and they've beaten the second-best team on their home slate in South Bend. Now No. 2 in the league, the Irish are headed for No. 5 or better nationally barring an upset loss at Pittsburgh Saturday afternoon.

"We need to turn the page quick, because noon on Saturday comes fast," said Brey of his team's pending matchup at the Petersen Events Center. "We would have every reason to be a little flat, a little unenergized considering what we had to do against NC State (a comeback from 18 down and overtime win), and tonight.

"I told (the team), if you get the one in Pittsburgh, I'll start to refer to you as having special qualities," he continued. "Human nature would say, you're not going to be very good. So I'm very interested to see how we are, high noon on Saturday."

They've been plenty good to date.

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