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December 18, 2012

Connaughton ‘driven' to success

NOTRE DAME, Ind. -- Rebound and shoot, shoot and rebound.

Pat Connaughton’s role during his freshman season in 2011-12 was pretty straightforward.

Irish head coach Mike Brey still wants Connaughton to rebound and shoot. He entered Monday night’s game against IPFW averaging 4.2 rebounds per game while taking 12 more three-point attempts than any other player on the team.

But the Irish sophomore from Arlington, Mass., has more on his plate this year, and as far as he’s concerned, he’s in the buffet line and it’s all you can eat. Connaughton is penetrating the lane off the dribble and also is drawing some of the more difficult defensive match-ups to take advantage of 6-foot-5, 212-pound frame and outstanding leaping ability.

“Last year, I was more of a shooter, one-dimensional,” said Connaughton, who averaged 7.0 points and 4.4 rebounds per game while connecting on 41 three-pointers.

“I’ve been (driving) more consistently in practice. The guys have been on me to do it more consistently. I didn’t do it as much last year because it wasn’t my role. I was just a freshman and not as ready. I’ve been doing it in practice, and I’m finally translating it to the games. It’s really helped me get confident.”

Brey had very little confidence in Connaughton’s penetration skills a year ago. In fact, he put tight restrictions on him.

“We had the one dribble rule with him last year because if he went more than that, it was usually a turnover,” Brey said. “Sometimes when he went one dribble I was sweating. He’s better with the ball. That’s where he’s made improvement.”

IPFW head coach Tony Jasick didn’t have Connaughton at the top of his scouting report Monday night, but he felt the Irish sophomore’s impact.

“You’re really between a rock and a hard place defending him because if you don’t help out, then he gets something, and if you do stay and help, he’s good at finding them,” Jasick said. “He makes their offense hard to guard.”

Brey always has been the kind of coach who eagerly entrusts his players with additional responsibility when they prove they’re ready for more, and Connaughton fits the mold. For just the second time in his short career, Connaughton has scored double figures in back-to-back games.

He scored 16 points with four rebounds and three assists in Notre Dame’s 81-68 victory over Purdue Saturday in Indianapolis, and then followed that up with an 18-point outburst (on 7-of-9 shooting) against IPFW. Connaughton also had six rebounds and five assists.

Brey is asking Connaughton to pay a price on the defensive end as well.

“We’ve asked him to guard the best guy and he says, ‘Thank you very much, I’ll take that,’” Brey said.

Connaughton helped limit IPFW’s Frank Gaines - who was ninth nationally last season in scoring and came into Monday night averaging 20 points per game - to 2-of-14 shooting. Saturday against Purdue, Connaughton was assigned to D.J. Byrd, who nailed six three-pointers in the first half alone against Clemson. Byrd was just 4-of-11 from the field against the Irish.

“I like it,” said Connaughton of his defensive role. “I like being able to add something, regardless how the offense is going and regardless of my point production.  I enjoy scouting them, seeing what their tendencies are, and trying to lock ‘em down.

“That’s kind of been my base throughout the whole season, covering those guys that were averaging a lot of points. It’s a pride thing. I don’t want to be scored on. I want to see how little I can hold them to. That’s just pure pride, hard work and using my athletic abilities to shut them down.”

Connaughton’s teammates are noticing a difference as well.

“I think he could have done that stuff last year, but as a freshman, you don’t really know,” said sixth-year senior Scott Martin. “It’s mainly his confidence. He knows that we need him to be aggressive. It’s great when all five guys out there are a threat to drive the ball, shoot the ball, pass the ball, everything. With him playing like that, he takes it to another level.”

He’ll seldom be Notre Dame’s leading scorer, rebounder or assist man. But Connaughton is starting to stuff the stat sheet on a regular basis, which comes at a good time with conference play just three games away.

“I knew I could do it and the coaches knew I could do it,” Connaughton said. “It’s just a matter of doing it in practice because practice translates to games.”


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