By Mike Grenier
HARTFORD, Conn. — Notre Dame senior guard Scott Martin surveyed the somewhat chaotic but deliriously happy postgame scene at the XL Center here yesterday and just shook his head.
Hundreds of people from the North Shore and his hometown of Arlington had come out to see former St. John's Prep great Pat Connaughton play against the University of Connecticut and now, after a stunning 50-48 upset over the No. 19 Huskies, it seemed that everyone wanted a piece of him.
Martin was thrilled for his freshman teammate and friend.
"Yeah, just look at this," Martin said. "I don't even KNOW as many people as (Connaughton) is seeing today. And they all came to see him play this game? This is something else."
Connaughton has never been one to call attention to himself in an artificial kind of way. He lets his play on the court speak on his behalf, and lately the volume has been turned up.
Anyone who said that Connaughton would never be able to play against the so-called big boys at the highest level of college basketball, particularly as a freshman, should've seen this game.
Connaughton nailed a pair of 3-pointers and finished with eight points and five rebounds in 28 minutes. He hit two critical free throws with 51.9 seconds remaining, making it a two-possession game in favor of the Fighting Irish, 47-42. Overall, his impact was much larger than anything that showed up on the stat sheet.
From the opposition's standpoint, Connaughton is an aggravating player. Why is it that, at 6-foot-5, he rebounds better than guys who are bigger and stronger? He plays intelligently, too, clearing himself for three-point opportunities or making backdoor cuts when the defense falls asleep. And hard-nosed defense has become one of his staples.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun displayed his respect for Connaughton yesterday by often putting sophomore guard Jeremy Lamb on him. Lamb is merely one of the most gifted and athletic players in the country.
"To tell you the truth, I didn't think about (Lamb)," Connaughton said. "You just go out and play the game. He (Lamb) was just the guy on the other team."
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey likes what he's seeing from Connaughton. It's been a gradual but steady climb for the freshman, who has cracked the starting lineup for the last three Big East games against Syracuse, Seton Hall and UConn, respectively. Syracuse was ranked No. 1 before Notre Dame knocked them off. Seton Hall was 15-4 when it fell to the Irish, and UConn is capable of blowing anybody out of the water. No one is saying Connaughton is the entire difference, but he's definitely making a difference.
"He played like a man today," Brey said. "He's not a freshman anymore. He's got some experience, and he gives us toughness. His rebounding and defense were key for us today. He made a big 3-pointer to start the second half, and he had those two critical free throws at the end. The kid is just so tough."
There was intense pressure on Connaughton at the foul line with less than a minute remaining. UConn had sliced a 10-point second-half deficit to three, and the XL Center crowd was rocking. But Connaughton sucked the air out of the building by swishing the freebies, basically putting the game away.
"Quite honestly, I was nervous for him," said Notre Dame sophomore guard Jerian Grant, who finished with 11 points and five rebounds. "But he knocked them down like it was nothing.
"Pat has played his role really well this season," Grant said. "He's not trying to do too much. He knocks down, shots and he really rebounds, which is something we struggled with as a team earlier in the season. He's playing big minutes now, and it's really helping us."
Connaughton still makes rookie mistakes, which is to be expected. With less than 7:30 remaining in yesterday's game, he came down with a defensive rebound and had to get rid of the ball before his momentum carried him out of bounds. He fired the ball toward the basket — a cardinal sin — and UConn's Andre Drummond ended up with a loud dunk that cut ND's lead to 36-33 and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Brey yanked Connaughton from the game, talked to him briefly and the fans might've thought the kid was done for the day. However, Brey has a lot of confidence in Connaughton, who sat out for just 15 seconds before returning to the floor.
"I told Pat that you just have to eat it (hold on to the ball) down there," Brey said. "I said to him, 'Get a rest and I'll put you back in there.' Then I told him he was going to get an open look off Grant's (penetration) and did he have one (key basket) left in him? You saw what happened. His 3-pointer (with a minute left) just rimmed out, but he made the big free throws a few seconds later.
"But I wanted him back in there. He made a lot of athletic plays in the paint that we needed."
Connaughton called it a "teaching moment" by Brey, and he welcomed it. That's the best way to shake off mistakes. Listen and learn. Go back out there and don't be afraid to play.
"You have to stay positive," Connaughton said. "Today, I missed a layup (off a strong offensive rebound) and made the bad throw to a wrong guy. They were negative plays at the time, but you have to build off those things and get better with experience. The team and the coaches have done a great job of building me up. I just need to keep playing."
A little more than a week ago, there was the image of Connaughton on ESPN being carried off the court after the Fighting Irish took down a 20-0 Syracuse team. But beating UConn on the road was nearly as impressive. UConn had whipped Notre Dame by 14 earlier this season at ND.
"It feels almost as good," said Connaughton, who has also shown a lot of discipline in the classroom, making the dean's list first semester. "Obviously, Syracuse was No. 1, and there was a lot of hype around that game. We took a pretty big lead against them, and that one was over. This one was tough because it was so close. The W was something we needed to get against such a good team on the road.
"Our persistence and our toughness won this game for us. Our mental toughness was a big thing. You really need it against this kind of competition and we had it."
Notre Dame improved to 14-8, 6-3 in the Big East with yesterday's win. The Fighting Irish are playing much better than anyone could have imagined after losing potential star Tim Abromaitis to a season-ending injury after just a couple of games. Connaughton is one of the players picking up the slack, and he says the team hasn't lowered its goals despite losing Abromaitis.
"A game like this is a confidence builder, just like the Syracuse and Seton Hall games," Connaughton said. "But it's still just three Big East games. We need to keep this going. We still want to make the (NCAA) tourney."
Brey is counting on Connaughton as much as anybody else on his roster for the stretch run.
"The kid is a fierce competitor — he's just fearless," Brey said. "He showed it the first week of practice. He's not a normal freshman.
"I just want Pat to keep getting better. He doesn't need to do much more than he's been doing. He needs to take open shots and be a rebounder and defender. He's athletic and we need that from him on the floor. He just needs to keep playing with the group. The older kids on this team have really helped him to grow up this season."
The basketball campaign has been so pleasantly surprising that Connaughton is in no particular hurry to get to the baseball season. Connaughton was recruited for both sports. If you don't think that's truly rare, consider that Connaughton will be the first Notre Dame player to compete in both sports since Tom Hansen did it during the 1973-74 academic year.
"Pat is a freak athlete," Martin said of Connaugton's double duty. "If anybody can pull it off, it's him."