Court Vision: Wolfpack waste 18-point lead in overtime loss to No. 8 Irish

Jerian Grant finished with 25 points, two shy of his career high, and blocked Trevor Lacy's last-second shot in overtime to lead Notre Dame to victory.

RALEIGH, N.C. — No. 8 Notre Dame (19-2, 7-1) came back from 18 points down in the first half to knock off N.C. State (13-8, 4-4) in overtime, 81-78. It was an exciting, back-and-forth game that could have gone either way. But it went the way of the Irish, and if you’re not paying attention to them yet, you should be.

1. Doubt Notre Dame at your own peril

When Notre Dame senior captain Pat Connaughton exited the Notre Dame locker room to speak to reporters, a security guard instructed him to move to make things easier. "Back up against the wall, baby," he said as he grinned and faced the media.

It was certainly appropriate. 

Connaughton and his Irish found themselves down by 18 points with 3:44 to go in the first half, and that’s exactly where they were — backs against the wall.

Down by 18 with 3:44 to go, Notre Dame was able to cut it to 12 before the break. 

"It’s amazing," Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. "We almost love coming from behind. I don’t know. Maybe we psychologically do it to ourselves, and then you kind of play loose and go for it."

It’s not as if the players weren’t doubting themselves. N.C. State’s defense was excellent, but Notre Dame was getting some good shots. Unfortunately, Notre Dame’s defense wasn’t so excellent, allowing 62.1 percent shooting in the first half. 

In the second half, they held N.C. State to 29 points on 39.1 percent shooting and outscored them 41-29.

"It says that we’re very resilient. The way we defend and the way we play offense and the true team that we are, we’re never out of ballgames. We’d prefer not to start 18 down, be in the hole 18, but what happened, happened," Connaughton said. "We had to try to forget it and move forward and really make a case for why we’re the eighth-ranked team in the country. 

"There’s always a period in games where teams make runs. We had to be elastic enough to take the punch and be able to fire back. I think we did that better this game than we had all season."

The problem with the Irish, if you’re the opponent, is that they’re a matchup nightmare. If you go with a traditional big lineup, you’re giving up something trying to guard their perimeter. If you go small, you’re negating your own advantage against the shorter Irish.

Even teams that have had a tremendous size advantage — like both N.C. State and North Carolina — have eventually had to go small at times.

"Everyone in this league had adjusted to us so far. They’ve all downshifted and played smaller, whether it’s in the first half, eventually they adjust to us," Brey said. It’s been really interesting to watch in every league game we’ve played."

According to Ken Pomeroy, Notre Dame has the No. 1 offense in the nation and defending it can be so deflating. If its three-pointers off of excellent ball movement aren’t falling, then its attacking the basket and drawing fouls. If you stop a drive, an unselfish player will pitch to an open teammate for three. 

And if you think you’ve gotten a stop, a missed three-pointer takes a long bounce — right back out to a guard for an offensive rebound.

"They spread the floor out so wide, they’ve got shooters beyond the three-point line — usually four of them — so your defense is spread out. The way they penetrate, pitch, shoot the three, a lot of times, it’s a long shot which means it’s a long rebound," N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried said.

And nothing sums up the mismatch problems better than this: 

"We didn’t want to give up a 3. Unfortunately, we ended up giving up a rebound," Gottfried said.

Last year, Notre Dame never even got to seven wins in ACC play. A year that started off pretty solidly ended in disaster when Jerian Grant was suspended after the fall semester for academic reasons. A 10-4 start — even winning two straight without Grant — ended in a 15-16 finish, a win over Duke at home never backed up with anything else in ACC play.

And so if you doubted how good Notre Dame could be going into this season, it’s hard to blame you. Grant is a great player, but how much of a difference could he really make?

A big one, as it would turn out.

The Irish won more games by January 14 of this year than it won all of last season and passed its ACC win total from last season already by overcoming an 18-point deficit. 

Notre Dame was 1-8 on the road last year in ACC play. This year, so far, it’s 4-0 with wins over Tobacco Road royalty in North Carolina and N.C. State.

"This is a new team. The biggest thing that we’ve done is we’ve worked on road atmospheres in practice," Connaughton said. "That’s a tough atmosphere that was out there today. They’re great fans, a great atmosphere to play in and an even better atmosphere to win in."

Notre Dame is No. 8 in the country and sure to rise. But it is still generally an afterthought behind the likes of Virginia, North Carolina, Duke, Louisville — the list goes on.

Maybe some people think it’s a fluke, and the Irish will fall back down to earth. And who knows? Maybe they’re right. But they don’t feel that way.

"It’s not really something we focus on. We’re really playing well right now and we have a chance on Wednesday," Grant said. "We get to play Duke at home. We’re just playing our game."

2. This was a gut punch of a loss for N.C. State

The Wolfpack have a nice resume win over Duke as far as the NCAA Tournament goes. But that’s about it at this point, and having an 18-point lead at home over a top-10 team seems like a great opportunity. 

Now, N.C. State has lost three of its last four since beating Duke, with the only win coming at Florida State — and even that game was closer than N.C. State would have liked.

The Wolfpack have surrendered double-digit leads in two of the last three games now, two on the road but still, and won one of those games. 

"That’s the second time in a row that we’ve come out in the second half and didn’t do what we’re supposed to do," N.C. State’s Ralston Turner said. "Give credit to them, and we need to do a better job."

N.C. State played hard, tough defense. But it wasn’t enough.

They were up by four with 40 seconds to go with the basketball and just couldn’t close it out. Particularly costly was an inbounds pass by Trevor Lacey that was knocked away and resulted in a foul being called at the end of regulation. 

"It hurt a lot. We had the game won. I pretty much threw the game away. I made an ill-advised pass at the end of regulation," Lacey said.

"I’m really proud of our effort. It’s something we’ve got to build on. We can’t hang our head. We can’t get down," Gottfried said.

And that’s the key for the Wolfpack. They can’t let two straight disappointments beat them multiple times. They’re entering a very manageable stretch in ACC play now with Clemson, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest coming up, and they need to bounce back in a hurry. 

"Have a short memory. There’s a lot more games to be played," Turner said.

3. Jerian Grant is putting his name in the ring in the ACC’s elite

Jahlil Okafor. Justin Anderson. Malcolm Brogdon. Rakeem Christmas. Montrezl Harrell. 

Senior guard Jerian Grant has been just as good, if not better, than all of them. 

"I know they talk about the big guy (Okafor) as the player of the year. No. 22 is every bit a player of the year candidate. I know we’re only two years in this league, but he’s fabulous, and tonight he was a top-10 pick," Brey said.

What difference could he have made last year?

Well, a pretty big one, as it turns out.

And he’s dominating games even when he’s not scoring, dishing out at least six assists in all but one ACC game — and that was this one, the one where his team needed every one of his 25 points to win.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said that Grant dominated the game against them in a win in Chapel Hill, even when he was just 1-of-4 shooting. He penetrated and kicked out to open teammates for eight assists. 

"I never got to play in the ACC, so just being able to come back and play, I want to show the ACC what I can do," Grant said. "It’s more about the team. We’re winning right now. As long as we keep winning, everybody’s going to get looked at."

Grant was absolutely unstoppable, even when N.C. State’s Cat Barber was glued to his hip pocket. He ran off screens hard, and just got whatever he wanted — even if he had to work harder to get it.

"The guys give me a lot of confidence, too. They look for me at the end of the games. They look for me in the beginning of the game, middle of the game, when we need a basket, when we’re on a run, the team looks to me. So that gives me a lot of confidence," said Grant.

5 and 4– That’s how many of Notre Dame’s offensive rebounds (five) and second-chance points (four) it scored on the final play of the first half and of regulation. The second-chance basket scored at the end of the first half cut the deficit to 12, and the basket at the end of regulation tied it up. (Notre Dame finished with 18 offensive rebounds and 10 second-chance points.)

15-of-48 — That’s what Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey have shot in the last two games combined — 7-of-25 in the loss at Miami, and 8-of-23 in the Notre Dame game. N.C. State will not win many games when that happens, even though the Wolfpack had a chance to win both.