At the end of his team's come-from-behind win over fourth-ranked Duke on Wednesday night, Notre Dame star Jerian Grant turned toward the student section and encouraged them to return to their seats instead of storming the floor.
Against all odds, they listened, which is as remarkable as any of the amazing late-game plays Grant made moments earlier to help seal a 77-73 victory.
In a game in which the opposing team boasted nine McDonald's All-Americans and national player of the year favorite Jahlil Okafor, Grant was undeniably the best player on the floor. He scored a game-high 23 points, dished out a season-high 12 assists and made the game's three biggest plays after the eighth-ranked Irish had rallied from a 10-point second-half deficit to get within striking distance.
Notre Dame was clinging to a one-point lead with just over a minute remaining when Grant was stripped by Tyus Jones, recovered the loose ball and somehow buried a 16 footer as the shot clock sounded without ever fully securing possession. Grant struck again after two Quinn Cook free throws cut the lead to one, drawing the Duke defense and making a mid-air kick-out pass to Steve Vasturia who buried a corner three to extend the Irish advantage to four with 22 seconds left.
That shot might have clinched it for Notre Dame, but Grant made sure at the other end. He swatted away Cook's driving layup attempt, securing a marquee victory for an Irish team that should not fly under the radar as a national contender any longer now that it's 20-2 overall and 8-1 in the rugged ACC.
If Grant wasn't already a national player of the year contender before Wednesday night, he should be now after outplaying the current frontrunner down the stretch. Okafor dominated in stretches and finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds, yet one of the stories of the game was how many points the freshman center left on the board late in the game.
In the final 4:21 of the second half, Okafor missed 4 of 5 free throws and had an easy layup spin off the rim and out. Mike Krzyzewski actually removed Okafor from the game for the final 1:40, a controversial decision that was probably as much for defensive purposes as it was because of the big man's foul shooting woes.
Duke's inability to hold its 10-point second-half lead leaves the Blue Devils (17-3, 4-3) in danger of slipping out of contention for the ACC title entering Saturday's showdown at unbeaten Virginia. If Duke doesn't win in Charlottesville, it will be four games behind the first-place Cavaliers and well behind surging North Carolina and Notre Dame as well.
The Irish meanwhile appear to be a legitimate threat to win the ACC. They boast one of the nation's elite offenses fueled by a deep, skilled backcourt and breakout interior threat Zach Auguste. They also have a little more interior depth than many initially thought because Bonzie Colson is showing signs of emerging as a capable backup big man.
Nonetheless, the star is Grant, the son of former NBA player Harvey Grant and the standout guard whose "academic mistake" cost him the second half of last season and sent Notre Dame plunging to the lower half of the ACC. Grant returned to school this season and has emerged as one of the nation's premier guards by averaging 17.1 points and 6.2 assists
The lone knock on Grant is his erratic 34 percent 3-point shooting, but you'd never know it from his brilliant performance Wednesday night. Among the two threes he hit was an ill-advised but jaw-dropping first-half 35 footer that came early in the shot clock.
It was fitting that it went in on a night when Grant could do no wrong. He scored 23 points. His assists led to 29 more. And he even managed to turn back the Notre Dame student section before it could storm the floor.
- - - - - - -