SOUTH BEND, Ind.—Tyus Jones had it played perfectly.
Jerian Grant hit the shot anyway.
Giving up four inches to the Fighting Irish guard, Jones held his ground as Grant backed him down at the top of the key, seconds running off the shot clock late in a 71-70 ball game. With three ticks left, Jones stripped the ball free, but Grant was the first to pounce on it, rising up to hit an off-balance mid-range jumper as the shot clock buzzer blared, then was drowned out by the roaring crowd at Purcell Pavilion.
“I was just trying to make it tough on him, he just made an unbelievable play. We got a deflection and we weren’t able to come up with the loose ball. And he just hits an incredible shot,” Jones said. “If we were able to come up with that loose ball, I think that would’ve turned some things around.”
It was that kind of night for Grant, who finished with a game-high 23 points and dished out 12 assists—as many as the entire Blue Devil roster. For good measure, the senior pulled down six rebounds and swatted away a driving lay-up by Quinn Cook with 17 seconds left to start a Fighting Irish fast break that earned a trip to the foul line.
On the next Notre Dame possession after his circus shot, Grant again found himself with a size mismatch at the top of the key late in the shot clock, this time against Cook—an old high-school friend—and with less than 30 seconds to play in regulation. Duke’s captain forced Grant to spin over his left shoulder, looking for all the world like he would attempt a fadeaway jumper to salt the game away.
As sophomore Matt Jones collapsed down into the paint to cover a streaking Demetrius Jackson, freshman Tyus Jones was left flat-footed in no-man's land focusing on the hot-handed Grant. The senior made the unselfish play, hitting the now-unguarded Steve Vasturia in the corner in front of the Fighting Irish bench. The sophomore drilled the triple—his only field goal of the night—to beat the shot clock again and send the Blue Devils home empty-handed from South Bend for the second year in a row, each time having led by at least nine in the second half.
“He loves the moment,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said postgame. “He is such a bright-lights, big-stage guy. He’s really clutch.”
Grant wasn’t around for Notre Dame’s 79-77 upset of Duke last January in the ACC opener, serving a semester-long academic suspension. He made sure his presence was felt early and often Wednesday.
In the first half, the Bowie, Md., native hurt the Blue Devils from long range, firing up a couple of deep 3-pointers over the outstretched arm of junior Amile Jefferson. The Fighting Irish spread the floor with four able 3-point shooters, meaning Jefferson—and in one sequence, even center Marshall Plumlee—was tasked with guarding a quick Notre Dame guard in space.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to go small in response, playing Jones and freshman Justise Winslow at the four position. Jefferson scored the first four points for the Blue Devils, but didn’t score again and only played 17 minutes.
Regardless of the lineup, there was no stopping Grant. He attacked the basket hard, navigating through traffic and around the length of 6-foot-11 Jahlil Okafor to finish multiple times at the rim, keeping the ball away from the shot-blocker until the last instant.
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“He protects the ball. I don’t know what else to say about that,” Okafor said. “He’s a great player.”
Grant’s game-clinching effort stole the show and will bolster his case for ACC Player of the Year honors, but Okafor—the AP Preseason Player of the Year—put together a monster stat line as well. The Chicago native finished with 22 points and 17 rebounds, but wasn’t happy with his performance.
The charity stripe proved especially cruel for the freshman, posting just a 2-of-7 ledger at the line. Three of those misses came inside the final four minutes as the Fighting Irish made their run to steal the game away from the Blue Devils.
“I’m not sure what it is, that’s how the game went,” Okafor said of his struggles at the line. “Free-throws definitely killed us, and that’s all on me too.”
As a team, the Blue Devils shot just 10-of-20 from the line, leaving points at the charity stripe that could have staved off the Notre Dame comeback. Krzyzewski chalked up the loss to missed chances, particularly “the opportunities that are free and the opportunities that are close.”
There will be very few of those opportunities come Saturday night in Charlottesville, Va., against the No. 2 Cavaliers, one of the stingiest defensive teams in college basketball.
Given a second chance to play against Duke, Grant made the most of his opportunity Wednesday. Given a second chance to topple a top-10 team on the road, the Blue Devils must look to do the same Saturday.