Prior to their game against then No. 1, previously-unbeaten Syracuse back on Saturday, Jan. 21, Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament hopes appeared to be bleak.
The Fighting Irish were struggling to stay “On the Bubble,” with an 11-8 record, including a 2-3 stretch in their last five games.
However, that’s when Notre Dame coach Mike Brey decided to insert a 6-foot-5, high-energy freshman swingman, who once honed his game at , into the starting lineup.
After the final buzzer sounded, the 19-year-old who played his high school ball at St. John’s Prep in Danvers was lifted on his newly-acquired fans’ shoulders, an image that was captured on the top of ESPN.com that night. Later, he appeared in Sports Illustrated’s “Leading Off” section, giving a celebratory fist pump on the court.
The win proved to be pivotal, as Notre Dame rattled off nine-straight wins and ended the regular season on a 10-2 run.
Connaughton, the former Massachusetts player of the year and state champion, would have two more standout games during the regular season, with 23 points and 11 rebounds in a 76-59 win over then No. 15 Marquette and 21 points and 9 rebounds in a 74-70 overtime win at Villanova. He also led the Fighting Irish with 12 points in their 57-53 overtime win against South Florida in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
No. 7 Notre Dame vs. No. 10 Xavier, 9:45 p.m. Friday
Notre Dame (22-11) now enters the NCAA tournament as the No. 7 seed in the South regional. They’ll play No. 10 Xavier (21-12) at 9:45 p.m. Friday, March 16, in the second round (because of the four play-in games) in Greensboro, N.C., with No. 2 Duke presumably looming in the second round on Sunday.
“They’ve told me not to really play any different than I’ve been playing, just kind of as hard as it will be, try to go into it like another game,” he told the Chicago newspaper. “In the days to come, my teammates and coach will tell me more about what to expect and what to be prepared for.”
Connaughton’s 3-pointers are expected to be a key component of Notre Dame’s offense in the tournament, according to the Tribune article.
So the question is: