UNCASVILLE, CT — Sunday did not exactly go the way that Mike Brey planned.
Coming off of a season where Notre Dame went just 15-17, finishing near the bottom of the ACC standings, and struggled to make plays down the stretch in close games, Brey saw it happen all over again in the finals of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off. LeDontae Henton scored seven points in the final 1:45, Patrick Connaughton got his shot blocked at the buzzer and the Irish fell, 75-74.
You’d think it was déjà vu all over again, that the loss would have opened old wounds, bringing to mind the painful way the 2013-2014 season came to a close. You’d think he would have at least appeared to be disappointed afterwards, but he wasn’t. Brey was as upbeat and as excited as any losing coach that I’ve ever seen.
“That was a great college basketball game for November,” Brey while addressing the media after the game. After chatting with the scribes for a few minutes, Henton walked by Brey who went over to the guy that just put his team to sleep. “Nice game, man,” Brey said while giving Henton one of those vigorous, never-break-eye-contact handshakes. “You’ve become a hell of a basketball player.” Next up was Ed Cooley, who got a smile, a slap on the back and a “you guys better go win that league now”.
To a point, it makes sense. Notre Dame and Providence are old Big East rivals, meaning Brey is quite familiar with both Henton and Cooley, but there’s more to his excitement than that.
The Irish may have lost, but Brey has been around the game long enough to realize that losses to good teams in close games are going to happen. He gets it, and he also realized during this game that, despite the close loss and despite the blocked shot on the last possession of the game, he’s got his closer back.
Jerian Grant sputtered through much of the first 28 minutes on Sunday, but he took over for the Irish down the stretch. He finished the afternoon with 20 points and six assists, but when he produced was more important than the numbers themselves. Grant had a hand in every point Notre Dame scored over the final 11:56. He set Connaughton up for a three. He set Steve Vasturia up for a three. He got fouled on back-to-back possessions and hit both free throws. He got Zach Auguste an open look at the rim, found Vasturia spotting up for three again and then created another scoring chance for Auguste, who was fouled and hit both free throws.
Providence would respond with an 8-0 run to tie the game at 66 with less than three minutes left. On the next four Notre Dame possessions, Grant hit a three, hit a layup and then notched an and-one that put the Irish ahead 74-73 with 29 seconds left.
Grant finished that stretch scoring 12 points and adding four assists, and the only reason he isn’t being talked about as National Player of the Week or getting written about by every outlet that covers college basketball is because Henton happened to score the last time he touched the ball. Grant didn’t.
“We’re disappointed we didn’t get out of here 2-0, but we’ve grown as a team,” Brey said. “Today, giving ourselves a chance to win.”
“We have the ultimate closer in Jerian, and you saw it.”
Providence is better than people may realize this season, and Brey knows that. He can’t get too upset losing to a good team in what was essentially a road atmosphere when the game came down to the wire like Sunday’s contest did.
But he can get excited knowing that Notre Dame has its closer back.