'I flashed back to South Bend'

 

When Jerian Grant’s potential game-winning shot sailed past the rim, Notre Dame’s 2015 season came to an end, and the Notre Dame careers of Grant and fellow senior Pat Connaughton came to an end. The Irish narrowly missed making history, falling to top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky, who marched on to the Final Four with a dramatic 68-66 win.  Having led for most of the game, the Irish expressed obvious disappointment and even disbelief after the game.

“You really don’t believe it, you know? You really don’t understand that you’re not going to be playing in this jersey anymore with these guys,” Grant said after the game.

“It hurts.”

Grant’s not the only player to have felt that way. Those same emotions, and the desire to get the band back together, led to the formation in 2014 of the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni, winners of The Basketball Tournament’s first ever winner take all grand prize.

The task of organizing the Notre Dame Fighting Alumni fell to former Notre Dame walk-on guard Kieran Piller. With both undergrad and law degrees from Notre Dame, Piller had been on campus for seven years and in that time had gotten to know nearly every Notre Dame player from Mike Brey’s tenure.  Piller had read about the high-stakes, single elimination event on Grantland.com and almost immediately put the wheels in motion. His initial inquiries were met with skepticism.

“I said where’s the money coming from?” Rob Kurz asked when Piller reached out to him.

Russell Carter fired off a series of questions when first approached to play in the first-ever event.

“Is it real? How do you know? Where did you hear this from? And is it really $500,000?” asked Carter.

“Then I asked, ‘Who’s on our team?’

But when Carter, a 2007 Notre Dame graduate, walked into the locker room for the first time at The Basketball Tournament and saw a shamrock on his jersey he felt like he had gone through a time machine.

“I walked in, seeing all the uniforms lined up, I kind of flashed back to being in South Bend,” he said back in June.

Piller constructed an experienced and well-rounded group of Fighting Irish products. Tyrone Nash, Ryan Ayers and Torin Francis joined Kurz, who played in the NBA, on the frontline. Former Mr. Basketball in Indiana Chris Thomas, Tory Jackson and Paul Gause – the only non-Notre Dame alum on the roster – made for an experienced perimeter attack along with Carter.

The end result was a 5-0 record and $500,000 in the bank following a thrilling 72-68 win over Team Barstool in The Basketball Tournament Championship Game on June 28 in Boston. The Fighting Alumni went on to donate $40,000 to the Coaches vs. Cancer Foundation.

“Playing together wasn’t our issue,” Piller said. “That was our strength. The one thing that was clear was that each game we played better and better.”

The Fighting Alumni played typical Notre Dame basketball with an efficient offense. The Alumni had a different leading scorer in each of the five games, shot 46 percent from three as a team and assisted on 14 of 26 field goals in the title game.

Even though some of these players on the Fighting Alumni didn’t even play together in college, the Notre Dame program helped form their chemistry during TBT.

“I know a lot of schools and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you know that guy?’ and they’ll be like, ‘No, he was after me. I don’t know anything about him,” Carter said.

“I know Ty Nash’s game. I know everything about him because once you leave [Notre Dame] you’re still part of it.”

Brey, who has been at Notre Dame for 16 years, instills that sense of family as soon as a recruit steps onto campus for the first time. True to his word, Brey would send congratulatory texts after each win, and even traveled to Boston for the championship game.

“This is a special group to me,” Brey said before the championship game. “A lot of them played together, some of them from different eras, but it’s been neat.

“Even some of my guys who didn’t play have come to support them, so I couldn’t miss it.”

Kyle McAlarney drove to Philadelphia to watch the opening round games. Luke Harangody and Tim Abromatis both watched from the stands as the Fighting Alumni won the championship. That trio shows what sort of talent pool the Fighting Alumni can pick from moving forward, as they look to defend their title in 2015.

“We’re gonna have to have a shoot off or a play-in game or something [for next year],” Thomas said.

As TBT champions, the Fighting Alumni will have a bye into the Super 17 in Chicago. The Fighting Alumni’s first game will be aired on ESPNU on July 23.

“I think for us some of the best years of our lives were playing for Notre Dame,” Kurz said. “Chris Thomas and I hadn’t seen each other in over a year, same with Russ. It’s a great opportunity to get back together, have a little reunion.

“Obviously it’s fun to be with your best friends from college.”  Anyone just finishing their college career, whether they nearly missed making history or not, would probably agree.

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