NOTRE DAME, Ind. – When Pat Connaughton was introduced in Notre Dame’s starting lineup for the final time at Purcell Pavilion Saturday afternoon, the Irish captain sprung from his seat, turned back to the crowd behind the bench to give a salute, and then fell blindly backwards into the arms of freshman Bonzie Colson.
“It’s called the trust drill,” said Connaughton following No. 12 Notre Dame’s scintillating Senior Day performance, an 81-67 victory over Clemson in his and Jerian Grant’s Purcell Pavilion swan-song performance.
“Just trying to show trust in your teammates and show that this thing doesn’t run on one person. We’ve been going at it together all season and we’re going to keep going after it the rest of the season.”
Notre Dame (26-5, 14-4) shot 54.5 percent from the field and dished out 20 assists – eight by Grant – and the Irish never trailed in notching its program-tying 14 conference victory after securing the No. 3 spot in the ACC three days earlier at Louisville.
“I thought about it,” laughed Grant of bypassing participation in the pre-game trust drill. “But Bonzie has made a few turnovers this year. I couldn’t really trust him like that.”
The 26 victories are the most by the Irish since the 2010-11 team finished 27-7. The 26 regular-season victories are the most since the 1908-09 team won 33 times.
“I don’t know if we could have scripted Senior Day any better,” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “I thought we really played well. I’m really thrilled with how we’re playing offensively heading to Greensboro.
“I was anxious today not about if we could beat Clemson; I just wanted it to be a good day for the seniors because my gosh, they deserve it.”
There was never any real doubt that the Irish would claim a victory over the Tigers (16-14, 8-10). Although the game was tied four times, Notre Dame never trailed. The lead reached 11 points in the first half before the Irish settled for a 38-31 halftime lead.
Notre Dame extended its advantage to double-digits on a Grant drive to the basket with 16:38 remaining, and it expanded to 21 with less than six minutes left.
The 81 points scored by the Irish against Clemson – which allowed just 60.6 points per game in the previous 17 conference games – were the most surrendered by the Tigers this season. The previous high was 74 by North Carolina.
“We gave up a bunch of layups,” said Clemson head coach Brad Brownell. “We just weren’t as locked in in terms of how competitive and disciplined we had to be.”
Grant led the way with 19 points, eight assists and five rebounds while Zach Auguste – after a shaky outing Wednesday at Louisville – sparked the Irish from the outset, finishing with 19 points on 9-of-13 shooting from the field.
Demetrius Jackson, who had scored just nine points in the three previous home games combined, tossed in 14 points. Steve Vasturia was the fourth man in double-figure scoring for the Irish, finishing with 12 points.
Vasturia’s defensive performance on Clemson leading scorer Jaron Blossomgame over the final 25 minutes eliminated any chance of the Tigers pulling the upset. Blossomgame made his first six shots from the field and had 17 points at halftime.
Once Brey put Vasturia on him, however, Blossomgame managed just five points in the second half. Connaughton also assisted Vasturia on Blossomgame.
Clemson big man Landry Nnoko, who had scored in double figures in just one of the previous 18 games, scored 19 points and snagged seven of his nine rebounds on the offensive end.
Clemson grabbed an incomparable 20 offensive rebounds for the game. But the Irish limited the Tigers to just 40.6 percent shooting, including 32.4 percent in the second half. Clemson missed 14-of-18 three-point attempts. Blossomgame made 9-of-12 shots, but the rest of the Tigers managed just 17-of-52 shooting from the field (32.6 percent).
“What always made me feel like we could be back in the mix this year was that Grant and Connaughton were two of the ten best players in the league coming back,” Brey said. “They were seniors, they had won together, and they were fabulous in setting the tone for us.
“I really believe our sophomores and (Bonzie) Colson have played like juniors because of the leadership of Pat and Jerian.”
Notre Dame opens ACC tournament play Thursday, March 12 at a scheduled time of 9:00 p.m. ET in Greensboro, N.C. The winner of Wake Forest-Virginia Tech will take on No. 6 seed Miami for the right to play the Irish.