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Jerian Grant, Irish have ingredients for special run

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The statement home wins against ranked opponents aren't new to Notre Dame. Neither are the take-control seniors or the big comebacks.

It's the combination of qualities that could propel the Fighting Irish to unchartered ground in two months. They have a nationally elite player in guard Jerian Grant -- "such a bright lights, big-stage guy," coach Mike Brey said after Grant's latest star turn. They have respected, reliable senior leaders in Grant and Pat Connaughton. They continue to make Purcell Pavilion the nation's least talked about hostile building for talented visitors (Notre Dame is now 6-1 in its past seven home games against top 10 foes and 14-7 overall under Brey).

But there's one quality Notre Dame has displayed throughout January that could pay off in March, when promising Brey teams typically crack under the brightest lights, on the biggest stages. If the Irish find themselves down big in the NCAA tournament, regardless of the opponent, they will not flinch.

"We should never panic when we're down now 'cause it's happened a bunch and we've come back," Brey said. "We'll be able to handle just about anything."

The Irish showed Wednesday they could handle No. 4 Duke, despite a 10-point deficit with 11:28 left. Notre Dame rallied for a 77-73 victory, its fourth comeback from a double-digit hole in the past five games. The eighth-ranked Irish have five double-digit comebacks in ACC play this month alone.

Most 20-2 teams don't endure such frequent adversity. Perhaps that's a knock on Notre Dame, which will continue to be critiqued for its defense and lack of size. But it's also a trait that could carry the team past the first weekend in the NCAA tournament -- a program bugaboo under Brey.

"It's developing that winning mentality," Connaughton said. "The biggest part about the regular season, the league play, all that, is you've got to develop a winning mentality so that you have confidence when you can win when the later parts come."

No Irish player reflects the mentality and confidence like Grant, who delivered a premier performance (23 points, 12 assists, six rebounds), especially on two critical possessions, that won't soon be forgotten around here. Notre Dame followed a familiar crunch-time plan: set a flat ball screen for Grant, let him read it and take over.

On the first play, with Notre Dame up 71-70 and just more than a minute left, Grant tried to shake Duke's Tyus Jones, but Jones stood firm. Grant wanted to step back and drive past Jones but lost the ball, only to recover and sink a wild heave to beat the shot clock.

"God, he loves the moment," Brey said.

After Duke once again cut its deficit to a point, Grant isolated himself, preparing to drive, but just as the clock wound down, he fired a pass to Steve Vasturia, alone behind the arc but 0-for-4 on the night.

"I was going to shoot a little fadeaway over the smaller defender," Grant said. "But when I got up there, I saw everybody crash the boards and Steve had his hands ready, spotted up in the corner."

Stay ready. That's what Grant had told the struggling Vasturia during a timeout minutes earlier. The message from Notre Dame's top scorer to its least likely option paid off.

"It has a huge effect," Vasturia said, "when the best player on the court has the confidence in you to shoot the ball."

Notre Dame beat Duke here last year, too, but Grant wasn't part of it, sidelined because of academic troubles. He has propelled Notre Dame into ACC title contention, and on a night when NBA scouts flocked to see Duke's Jahlil Okafor, Grant stole the show.

"When I look back, I do think about [the absence]," Grant said. "I'm excited we're back here, we're winning together."

Notre Dame needed Grant's best performance to beat Duke, and it also needed lifts from others like freshman Bonzie Colson, who contributed on both ends against Okafor while filling in for the foul-plagued Zach Auguste. Colson gained valuable experience when Auguste missed a Jan. 14 game against Georgia Tech.

The Irish now have another option for their thin front line.

"He just played with a lot of heart," said Okafor, who finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds but missed several attempts around the rim and five free throws, including three down the stretch. "He had a huge part in his team winning."

Okafor and the Blue Devils should be there late in March. They have the offensive firepower and depth to make a deep run, despite their third loss in six games.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, must prove its staying power. It showed it belonged in the Big East. It's showing it belongs in the ACC.

But the Irish have just one Sweet 16 appearance in Brey's 14 previous seasons.

Brey isn't ready to throw out superlatives just yet. He could Saturday at Pittsburgh.

"We would have every reason to be a little flat, a little under-energized," Brey said. "I said, 'If you get the one in Pittsburgh, I'll start to refer to you as having special qualities.'"

Those qualities were on display Wednesday night in familiar surroundings. Notre Dame needs them to show up in unfamiliar settings in March.