Grant keeps fans from rushing court, makes statement in upset of Duke

The shot clock was winding down — 10, 9, 8, 7 — but Jerian Grant was calm as can be, dribbling at the top of the key. The situation was huge: a little more than a minute left, up one point on Duke, a program that’s the class of the ACC and a team that’s ranked fourth in the nation.

Instead of moving the ball around the perimeter, Grant stared down his defender, Duke’s stud freshman point guard Tyus Jones. Grant dribbled between his own legs, not just once or twice but maybe five or six times.

It was one of the biggest moments of the Notre Dame senior’s career, and Grant had a statement to make.

He dashed into the lane. Jones deflected the ball with only a couple seconds left on the shot clock. Somehow, Grant snatched the ball from mid-air, elevated at the free throw line and swished an off-balance floater.

Next offensive possession, same thing: Grant at the top of the key, shot clock ticked down, he dashed into the lane, the defense swarmed — but instead of forcing anything, Grant did what his coach knew he would do. He dished off to a wide-open teammate, Steve Vasturia, in the corner. In a timeout moments before, Grant had turned to Vasturia, who was 0 for 4 from the field, and told him a big shot was coming his way. Sure enough, the pass landed in his hands, and Vasturia nailed it as the shot clock went off, a 3-pointer that was a dagger in Duke’s heart, and part of a frantic final 70 seconds that may have brought a sea change to the top of the ACC.

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“Whatever Jerian wants to do when he’s feeling it like that,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said after eighth-ranked Notre Dame beat Duke 77-73 and vaulted the Fighting Irish into the conversation as a possible top-five team. “God, he loves the moment. He is such a bright-lights, big-stage guy. He’s really clutch.”

In college football, we have Heisman moments. There was Cam Newton dancing around defenders on his way to a long touchdown run against LSU. There was Johnny Manziel’s wild scramble and touchdown pass that helped beat Alabama. There was Desmond Howard striking the Heisman pose after returning a punt for a touchdown against Ohio State.

What we may have seen on Wednesday night in South Bend was Jerian Grant’s Wooden Award moment — that moment in time where, on the biggest of stages, he was the best of players.

First there were the numbers: The 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting, the 12 assists, the three steals, the playing all 40 minutes. There was the I-can’t-believe-he-did-that shot, with a first-half pull-up 3-pointer that was barely a stride away from halfcourt. There was the maturity and the class from the 6-foot-5 senior, who motioned to the student section that it should not storm the court, indicating that this was not an upset — that Notre Dame was, in fact, on the same plane as Duke.

But most of all, there were those two moments in the game’s final 70 seconds when Grant got the ball and said: mine. This moment is mine.

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“I just knew that coming down late-game, I had to make plays. Making plays late-game is something I know I can do,” Grant said. “It’s Coach. It’s the guys. They give me a lot of confidence to make whatever move I want.”

He had clutch moves on both ends of the court: After Vasturia swished his 3, Duke sprinted down the floor and senior guard Quinn Cook tried to put up a quick layup. Except Grant caught up to him from behind, skied over him and swatted the shot away.

Yes, it is only halfway through ACC play, and a lot can change. But right now Notre Dame looks like the most surprising team in the country, and its best player ought to be right near the top of the conversation for the nation’s top player. The Fighting Irish are 20-2 overall and 8-1 in the ACC, second to only unbeaten Virginia, and about to jump higher in the polls.

Think about that for a moment: In a conference with bluebloods Duke, UNC, Louisville and Syracuse, it’s Virginia and Notre Dame who are at the top.

The Irish can make a case that they are the most fun team in all of college basketball, an antidote to all the slow-it-down, low-scoring basketball that so many bemoan as the worst part of today’s college hoops. Notre Dame has the nation’s most efficient offense, according to KenPom.com, and absolutely shoots the lights out. The Irish rank tops in the nation in both effective field-goal percentage and shooting percentage on two-point attempts, and 14th in the nation from 3.

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To have this sort of basketball being played in South Bend just one year after Brey finished below .500 and missed the NCAA tournament is remarkable. Talk about Maryland if you want, or about Utah, or about Indiana, but for my money, Notre Dame is the nation’s most surprising team.

And you can trace that all back to the return of Jerian Grant — pronounced "Jer-ran" — the son of former NBA player Harvey Grant and brother of Philadelphia 76ers forward Jerami Grant.

Jerian Grant was kicked off the team in the middle of last season for academic reasons. This season was his big chance to impress NBA scouts. In a big-time matchup Wednesday where more than 20 NBA scouts were in attendance, that’s exactly what he did.

“He’s putting himself in position to be a very wealthy man next year,” Brey said.

Pat Connaughton, a fellow senior, sat in the locker room afterward in a world of pain. His head still was throbbing from a scary second-half fall that slammed his head against the floor. An ice pack rested on his right wrist. This game had been a war, and Connaughton knew that Grant was this team’s general.

“The best thing about him is he’s going to attack, but he’s not just going to attack with tunnel-vision and just go to the basket,” Connaughton said. “Everyone on this team knows he’s going to make the right play, the winning play.”

A team that’s now come back from 10-point deficits in five of its past six victories has to play with that sort of confidence in its leader. Look, don’t get me wrong: One prime-time January win does not all of the sudden make Notre Dame a basketball school. This is still a program that’s made exactly one Sweet 16 since 1987. In that same time period, Duke has made 19. No matter what the players say, a Notre Dame win over Duke always will be an upset.

What this win says is it’s time to start taking this team seriously. When it comes down to it, I don’t think Notre Dame is Final Four-type good, and I don’t think Jerian Grant will end up winning the Wooden Award for the nation’s top player. But if you’re not putting Grant and his Fighting Irish at the top of your conversation, then you clearly didn’t watch him on Wednesday night when, in one of the biggest moments, he made the biggest of statements.

Email Reid Forgrave at reidforgrave@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.