Sometimes, the difference between a basketball team that finishes 6-12 in conference play and one that sits 10-3 with five games to go isn’t nearly as great as the disparate records might indicate.
In games decided by single digits in ACC play a year ago, Notre Dame managed to defeat several of the also-rans, mostly at home. But when it came time to knock off a few of the upper echelon programs, the Irish fizzled and came up short.
Fifteen of Notre Dame’s 18 conference games in 2013-14 – its first season in its new conference – were decided by single digits. Six fell Notre Dame’s way – home (in overtime) and away against Boston College, and at home against Duke, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Clemson (two overtimes).
Nine other times, the Irish weren’t so fortunate, losing seven on the road to Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Maryland, Florida State, Syracuse, Miami and North Carolina by a combined 37 points, and two at home to North Carolina State and Pittsburgh (overtime) by a combined 11 points.
Thirteen games into the 2014-15 ACC season, the Irish have turned things around, winning six-of-seven games decided by five points or less. Ten of Notre Dame’s 13 conference games have been decided by eight points or less with the Irish sporting an 8-2 record.
The Irish did it again Tuesday night at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, S.C. Trailing by four with under four minutes remaining, Notre Dame out-scored the Tigers 8-2 the rest of the way and held on during a mad scramble in the final seconds as DeMarcus Harrison’s 23-footer bounced off the rim.
“I’m really proud of our group,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey, a phrase he has used often this season. “We’re at 10 league wins. Heck of a way to go into a bye week with a win like that.”
While such a dramatic turnaround can never be the result of one player, no single player is more responsible for the turnaround than fifth-year senior Jerian Grant, who tossed in a game-high 22 points against Clemson on 7-of-14 shooting from the field and 7-of-7 from the line while chipping in with five assists, three steals, a couple of rebounds and a blocked shot.
Grant is, in baseball parlance, a shutdown closer. The Irish put the basketball in his hands and let him dictate the outcome, which can come in multiple forms because of his vast shot-making ability as well as his vision and distribution of the basketball.
“Jerian Grant was flat-out fabulous being the conductor of what we wanted to do offensively, especially in crunch time,” Brey said. “That’s why he’s thrust himself into the player-of-the-year talk in the league.”
Grant’s two free throws with 3:52 remaining pulled the Irish to within 58-56. His steal led a Demetrius Jackson rebound basket to tie it. Grant missed a jump shot with 1:11 remaining and the Irish leading by two, but Pat Connaughton snagged the rebound, kicked it back out to Grant, and this time Grant hit the shot with 42.7 seconds remaining to give the Irish a four-point lead.
“If he’s not scoring it, he’s making the pass to score it,” Brey said. “You saw him at his best, and he’s done that a lot this year. I don’t know if there’s a better player in the country at crunch time to take a big shot. He’s having a fabulous year, and he’s a thrill to coach.”
Said Clemson head coach Brad Brownell: “Grant…what a great player.”
The emergence of Jackson also has made Notre Dame’s resurgence in close games possible. Connaughton remains Connaughton, which means gritty and productive with the game on the line. Sophomore Steve Vasturia has come through in the clutch as well.
Big man Zach Auguste is going through a confidence crisis with just two points combined in the last two games. Freshman Bonzie Colson has helped bridge the gap when Auguste has struggled. V.J. Beachem has played a periodic key role off the bench, mainly as a three-point shooter.
With just five ACC games remaining – which will come over a three-and-a-half week span with a pair of Saturday byes (Feb. 14 and 28) coming up – the Irish have plenty of time to regain their legs, which undoubtedly are a bit weary with a seven-man rotation.
Nothing energizes a basketball team, however, like a steady stream of close victories, particularly on the road where the Irish are now 4-1 in games decided by four points or less with victories over North Carolina (71-70), Georgia Tech (62-59), North Carolina State (81-78 in OT), and now Clemson.