Pat Connaughton's ambition powers Notre Dame to Sweet 16
Diving for a loose ball. Grabbing a rebound. Getting in the face of a teammate. The 6-foot-5 forward has been the heart and soul of the Fighting Irish (31-5) during their surprising season and Sweet 16 run.
Connaughton's will to win was evident in the closing seconds in Notre Dame's 67-64 overtime victory over Butler.
First, he was encouraging teammate Zach Auguste after his boneheaded double dribble with 2 seconds left that gave Butler a another chance. Then he was putting his arm around an agitated Demetrius Jackson in the team huddle to calm him. Then he was soaring to make an authoritative block of a shot by Kellen Dunham to make sure the Irish didn't lose in regulation.
Finally, in overtime he ended a 0-for-5 streak from 3-point range by hitting a shot from the corner to give the Irish the lead. Running back on defense he shouted, ''They're not gonna stop us.''
''He is the cruelest of competitors,'' Note Dame coach Mike Brey said. ''Nice guy off the court. But he will cut your heart out on it. He's set a great tone for us.''
Connaughton, a fourth-round draft pick of the Baltimore Orioles, started setting the tone last summer while pitching Single A baseball for the Aberdeen Ironbirds. He'd see fellow senior Jerian Grant text a message about a pickup game on campus and see teammates respond with excuses about why they couldn't make it.
Connaughton sent a mass text.
''I said, `Jerian's going to set a time for pickup. No matter what, you're going to be there. He's the captain at this point in time. If he says it's time for pickup, it's like coach said it's time for pickup. All of you are going to be there,''' Connaughton said.
Connaughton kept setting the tone when he returned to campus. He'd tell teammates he didn't want to see comments made on the court lead to bad blood off the court, as was the case the previous season.
Brey has said repeatedly this season that this year's team was more mature in accepting criticism.
''They are more secure with each other when they're confronted by each other,'' he said.
Connaughton has led by example also. He is third on the team in scoring at 12.5 points a game and leads the Irish with 7.3 rebounds a game. He is 16th nationally in 3-point shooting percentage at 42.7 percent and 34th in defensive rebounds with 6.25 a game.
Assistant coach Anthony Solomon is fond of saying, ''It's Pat's world.''
''Whatever he wants to do, and there's some truth to that,'' Brey said. ''You talk about a guy being born under the right star, man, it just happens for him.''
Connaughton is hoping an NBA team will give him a chance, but he also is interested in signing another contract with the Orioles. He said he can't decide which sports he likes better.
''It's like a parent answering the question of who is their favorite twin,'' he said.
Irish fans just hope Connaughton can lead Notre Dame to wins over Wichita State (30-4) and the winner between Kentucky (36-0) and West Virginia (25-9). That would put the Irish in the Final Four for just the second time in school history.