After a pair of free throws, Jerian Grant flew upcourt while thousands held their breath. Working his way to the corner in front of the Irish bench, the senior guard pulled up and let fly a desperation 3-pointer. Nervous fans clad in blue exploded as the shot sailed past the rim, and Kentucky moved on to the Final Four, surviving Notre Dame’s upset bid, 68-66.
“The one thing I did tell them, I said, ‘When we walk out of here, man, we’re champions now, we’re going to get championship rings’ — this group won a championship, and hopefully it’s something to build on,” Irish head coach Mike Brey said during his postgame press conference.
As painful as the ending was — Brey said it would “still be a little raw until tomorrow” — the group that walked off the court in Cleveland more than earned its spot in Notre Dame lore.
Although the Irish have reached the Final Four before, in 1978, no team has complied a more impressive résumé than this year’s squad.
The team’s 32 wins were the most the program accumulated since the 1908-1909 season, when it went 33-7 under head coach Bertram Morris.
Their ACC tournament title was the first-ever postseason tournament championship in the 110 seasons of Irish men’s basketball. The only previous conference championship of any sort came in 2001, when the program won the Big East regular-season crown.
This squad claimed three wins against the four teams that eventually made it to the Final Four. One came in overtime against Michigan State on Dec. 3 at Purcell Pavilion, the venue that also witnessed Jan. 28’s 77-73 upset of Duke, the first of two Irish victories over the Blue Devils.
Notre Dame won six games overall in the postseason: three in the ACC tournament and another trio en route to the Elite Eight. After an early test from Miami (Fla.), the Irish rattled off commanding, back-to-back wins over perennial ACC powerhouses Duke and North Carolina in Greensboro, North Carolina, just miles from their respective campuses. The Irish took their second from the Blue Devils by 10, 74-64, and then outgunned the Tar Heels, 90-82, in a title game that’s final score was only close because of a late Carolina surge.
In the NCAA tournament, the Irish shook off an early test from Northeastern, then eliminated Butler in overtime two days later to advance to the Sweet 16. Once there, Notre Dame breezed past Wichita State behind shooting 75 percent from the field in the second half.
This set up the dance with Kentucky in what many called the best game of the 2015 tournament, a game in which neither team held a lead larger than six, and Notre Dame led for almost double the time the Wildcats did.
Not bad for a team that finished 15-17 and missed the NCAA tournament altogether the year before.
Yet for all the accolades, there was one common refrain heard throughout the Notre Dame locker room all season.
“One thing I definitely remember is being on the court with all 12 of my brothers,” junior forward Zach Auguste said after the Kentucky game.
“The biggest thing [a win] would mean for us is we’d get to keep playing together. We have so much fun playing together,” sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson said before the Butler game.
The team chemistry was evident all season, a mesh created before the season even started.
“It started in Italy,” Auguste said after the season came to an end. “We had a great trip, and we built something that was really special that this program hasn’t scene in a long time.”
The team traveled to Italy during the summer, spending nine days playing exhibition games, sightseeing and bonding in what Brey said from the beginning “was a great advantage.”
“It comes at a great time for our program with the year that we had, Grant coming back, some you guys that we need to do more this year, to get those 10 practices, those four games and to kind of be together in game mode,” Brey said Oct. 15.
While the trip allowed players like Jackson and Auguste to mature and play with the starters, it was even more important for what was the team’s biggest question mark coming into the season: Grant’s return from an academic suspension that sidelined him for the spring semester in 2014.
To say the senior quieted his critics would be an understatement.
The guard from Bowie, Maryland, led the Irish in scoring (16.5 points per game), assists (6.7 per game, seventh nationally), steals (63) and minutes per game (37.1, 18th nationally), but Irish fans will remember a number of highlight-reel plays from the year as well: the final minute during the first Duke win, when he lost the ball going up for a 3-pointer, recovered it and hit a floater over a Blue Devil defender to give the Irish the lead; then the drive and kick to a wide-open sophomore guard Steve Vasturia for 3; and finally a block on the defensive end to preserve the lead. There was also the dunk against Georgia Tech, where he skied so high he touched the rim to his stomach.
Grant’s classmate and guard/forward Pat Connaughton made his share of big plays as well, including the block at the end of regulation against Butler that helped the team to the NCAA tournament win.
“We’re going to overtime to win this game,” Grant said of his thoughts after Connaughton’s block. “It was a big play our captain made, and now we can go win it in overtime.”
Yet it was in his leadership the team captain made his largest impact. Just before Connaughton made the resounding block against Butler, Auguste double-dribbled while the Irish were trying to break the Butler press, handing the ball back to the Bulldogs with a chance to win the game. Auguste, visibly upset with himself, began walking back with his head down. That’s when Connaughton swooped in.
“I said to him, ‘Hey, that’s dead and gone. There’s nothing we can do about the mistakes we made. The beautiful thing about it is we have complete control over the outcome of this game,’” Connaughton said.
Connaughton said at the season-ending awards banquet he and Grant, who shared the team’s MVP honor, wanted to change the perception of Notre Dame men’s basketball.
“We just wanted to make you guys proud,” he said to the crowd. “We wanted to make our teammates proud. They’ve done so much for us. The coaching staff, everybody in this community has done so much for us. We came back this year, talked about it before we came back, and we wanted to not just change the culture but change it so you guys were proud and so that you guys had something to write home about.”
Jackson, a highly touted recruit and the heir apparent in the Irish backcourt, also exploded onto the scene following a freshman season that failed to live up to expectations. The guard was suspended by Brey and missed a pair of games last spring before becoming one of the team leaders this season, averaging 12.4 points a game and trailing only Grant in steals while operating the Notre Dame offense and establishing himself as one of the best defenders in college basketball.
Jackson also provided a few highlight-reel moments of his own: dunking over Purdue’s seven-foot-two sophomore center Issac Haas at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and going behind his back on a dribble before feeding a no-look pass to Auguste for a slam during the NCAA victory over Northeastern.
Auguste and Vasturia, for their parts, each averaged double-figure scoring totals, 12.9 and 10.4, respectively. Auguste played strong inside in the NCAA tournament, highlighted by his seemingly constant put-back dunks on the way to putting up 20 points against Kentucky, after dealing with his own academic issue that caused him to miss the game at Georgia Tech in mid-January. Vasturia found himself hitting crunch-time buckets as the season progressed, perhaps most notably his corner 3 in the first win over Duke.
With the returning core of Jackson, Vasturia, freshman forward Bonzie Colson and sophomore forward V.J. Beachem, Brey said after the Kentucky game he couldn’t help peeking at next season.
“I think I was in denial because walking down the hall [to the interview room], I had Auguste and Vasturia, and I was talking about next season; that was my way of thinking ahead a little bit,” Brey said.
Still, next year has a tough act to follow.
“It’s a team that captured the nation,” Brey said at the awards banquet. “Certainly it captured our fan base and fans. … But it captured the country. What a fun and energizing group of guys to be around.”