POY Alumni: Connaughton's homecoming

Notre Dame forward Pat Connaughton is earning valuable minutes for the Irish just a year after capturing Gatorade Massachusetts Boys Basketball Player of the Year honors. Associated Press

Notre Dame’s enigmatic men’s basketball team brings an 11-1 home record into Saturday’s South Bend showdown with No. 15 Marquette, but clutch play in a New England homecoming for freshman Pat Connaughton helped the Irish (14-8) open the week with a huge road win at UConn.

Connaughton, the 2010-11 Gatorade Massachusetts Boys Basketball Player of the Year, earned loud cheers this past weekend at Hartford’s packed XL Center, situated just 105 miles from where he spent his high school career at St. John’s Prep (Danvers, Mass.).

“It was so sweet to have such support in the stands,” said the 6-foot-5 forward, who turned 19 last month. "My dad said there were almost 300 people here who came out to see me. It was a great feeling, especially since we came away with a win.”

Sunday’s 50-48 victory was the third straight for the Irish (6-3 Big East), a stretch that included knocking former No. 1 Syracuse (22-1; 9-1) from their perch. Despite a 3-7 record away from Purcell Pavilion, Notre Dame is already receiving votes on ballots in the AP Top 25 poll. Connaughton is averaging 6.1 points and four rebounds in just under 22 minutes per game.

Against the Huskies, Connaughton made his sixth start and played 28 minutes. He contributed eight points and five rebounds and continued his knack for factoring into game-changing moments. With ND trailing 24-21 to open the second half, Connaughton drained a 3 from the left wing that sparked a 13-0 run. With under a minute to play in the game and the Irish up 44-42, he stepped to the line for a one-and-one free throw opportunity and knocked down both to make it a two-possession game with 51.3 seconds left.

That’s not to say he doesn’t have his freshman moments. With 7:23 to go and UConn rallying, Connaughton did a remarkable job of keeping alive a chance for a defensive rebound under the Notre Dame basket, then finally gained control of the ball as he was headed out of bounds. In desperation, he fired the ball back underneath the hoop, leading to an easy Huskies layup. Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey promptly yanked his first-year standout, offered some pointed words on the bench and sent him back in the game 15 seconds later.

What was said?

“He told me, ‘This isn’t baseball. Don’t toss it to someone. Either throw it deep or if you have to, hold onto it (and we’ll play defense),’” said Connaughton, a talented right-hander who will also pitch for the ND baseball team this spring.

In the meantime, if Notre Dame can play as well on the road as Connaughton does when he’s close to home, a certain selection committee might just come calling next month.

As a high school senior, Connaughton averaged 22 points, 16 rebounds and eight assists per game, leading the Eagles to a 25-1 record and the program’s first Division 1 state title. He graduated with a 3.5 GPA.