Down the stretch he comes

CLEVELAND – Connaughton enters tonight’s game against Wichita State 18th on Notre Dame’s all-time scoring list with 1,441 points and 12th in rebounds with 804. And yet numbers can’t begin to quantify what Connaughton has meant to the Notre Dame basketball program.

CLEVELAND – It takes discipline, maturity, and a strong will to make the decision Pat Connaughton did in returning to Notre Dame for his final season of basketball.

It also takes vision, foresight and gratitude.

“This University gave me a lot of opportunities, not just on the court but off the court,” said Connaughton Wednesday as the Irish prepared for tonight’s Sweet 16 battle against Wichita State at Quicken Loans Arena.

“So when it came down to making a decision, there really wasn’t a decision for me to make. I knew in my heart that I wanted to come back and I didn’t want to give up on basketball -- let alone on this team and this University -- before I saw it through.”

Whenever Connaughton’s journey ends, whether it be in Cleveland Thursday or Saturday, or in Indianapolis next weekend, he will be able to leave Notre Dame holding his head high for doing the right thing, for doing the honorable thing, for doing what his gut instinct told him he had to do.

A fourth-round draft choice by the Baltimore Orioles last summer, Connaughton could have made a selfish decision, taken the money and pursued his dream of pitching in the big leagues.

Then again, there was a degree of selfishness in the decision because he simply wasn’t ready to give up on the other sport that he loves. He enters tonight’s game against the Shockers 18th on the all-time Irish scoring list (1,441) and 12th on the rebound chart (804).

The notion that when his college journey ends, so too will his basketball dreams, is premature.

“Everyone told him leading up to the baseball draft, ‘Do not say you’re coming back to play basketball. It will hurt your draft status,’” said Irish head coach Mike Brey. “But his dad said, ‘We’re not going to BS about that. We’re coming back. We’re going to finish this thing.’

“Pat loves playing basketball, and he’s intrigued about what the NBA thinks about him. So there was never any wavering. I felt all along we’d get (Connaughton and Jerian Grant) back, and they communicated a lot about how they were going to do this thing right, and my God, have they put on a clinic in that department.”

Of course, Grant is the other part of the equation in this Notre Dame basketball success story. Grant has 1,715 points in his career, which is 12th in school history and just five points from passing Kelly Tripucka for 11th. He’s also third in assists with 673.

Grant, who was forced to leave Notre Dame following an academic misstep last fall, was a unanimous first-team all-ACC choice this season and a legitimate candidate for conference player of the year. The one-two punch of Grant and Connaughton was the driving force behind the revival, which often seemed like a million miles away as Connaughton was pitching for the Irish last spring.

On the basketball court, particularly at this stage of the NCAA tournament, the lights are shining bright. Their every move will be captured on national television. For Connaughton, the spotlight often was turned off during his baseball playing days as he toiled in freezing temperatures and in front of sparse crowds.

Connaughton – disciplined, focused, determined – tried to treat each of those instances as if a national audience was tuning in.

“When you’re on the mound and there aren’t many people there and it’s a cold, rainy spring day in South Bend, Ind., you still find yourself in competitive situations where you need to step up in order to put your team in a position to win that game, and those games are just as important,” Connaughton said.

“So when you get to a stage where everyone’s watching, you’ve put yourself through some pressure situations and you’ve put yourself in a position where winners win.”

Brey doesn’t believe the Irish would be at this stage – following a disastrous 15-17 season – without Connaughton’s leadership and influence on the supporting cast.

“I felt strongly that it would be Connaughton’s team and voice,” Brey said. “It’s his voice, his demeanor, his tone.

“(Demetrius) Jackson and (Zach) Auguste were ready to be key guys because of how Pat led and talked to them. Same thing with Bonzie Colson. Same thing with (Steve) Vasturia becoming even more confident.”

The fact that Connaughton and Grant are sitting in Quicken Loans Arena on this rainy day in Cleveland was, to a large extent, a bit improbable to consider just one year ago, not only because of the basketball team’s struggles, but the options facing Connaughton and Grant.

Asked again why he would be here when he could be bathing in the warmth of spring training, Connaughton throws an arm around Grant on the dais upon which they sit.

“This is my guy,” Connaughton said. “We came in together (Grant actually arrived a year earlier), we played together, we have similar interests and those interests include winning. We weren’t satisfied with the way last season ended.

“Myself, being a captain and having to go through a stretch where I wasn’t a good enough leader to put our team in those situations, and to see the way Jerian felt about not being there, it made us that much closer.

“It wasn’t a joint decision, but at the same time, we half kidded that if you don’t come back, I won’t come back. We wanted to make sure we wrote our own history in Notre Dame basketball.”

Connaughton is all about tying up loose ends. The opportunity to return to Notre Dame for another season on the basketball court, to right the ship and to keep his options open, ultimately was an easy choice…and a good one at that.

“To come back and to have the year that we’ve had and put ourselves in a position to make an even deeper run in March shows the exact reasons I came back,” Connaughton said.

“It shows that it paid off and that I made the right decision.”


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