SOUTH BEND — Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant haven’t gotten over how last season ended for Notre Dame.
The guards were at the center of an unusual call in the Irish’s 67-63 loss to Xavier in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Atkins was at the free-throw line with Notre Dame trailing Xavier 65-63 with 2.8 seconds to play. He appeared to make a free throw, but Grant was ruled to have left his position behind the three-point arc too early as he ran in for a rebound, giving the ball back to the Musketeers.
Xavier sank two free throws in the closing seconds to complete its comeback from a 10-point deficit midway through the second half.
“That’s been a motivator for us since the summer, really ever since that (Xavier) game ended that’s been on our mind,” Atkins said.
“The last 10 minutes replay in my mind over and over. We both didn’t play as well as we should have. That’s just been a motivating factor since it was over, and it’s really helped us get better.”
A better Atkins-Grant combo will be bad news for the No. 22 Irish’s opponents.
The juniors were a main factor for Notre Dame as the team saved a season that appeared lost when preseason All-Big East selection Tim Abromaitis tore the ACL in his right knee after playing in just two games.
The 6-foot-2, 182-pound Atkins was elevated to a captain before the start of conference play, and he averaged 12.1 points and 4.1 assists while playing a team-high 37.9 minutes per game.
The 6-5, 202-pound Grant averaged a team-high five assists and was second in scoring, averaging 12.3 points, and minutes played, averaging 36.2.
“Our young guards played older than they were in the regular season, but in the postseason they kind of played their age again,” coach Mike Brey said of Atkins and Grant. “I think both of them have a little chip on their shoulder to want to get off to good start because they weren’t happy with the postseason.”
Atkins said he will approach this season with a calmer mentality and is taking better care of himself off the court.
Atkins would only get about five hours of sleep each night last year, but the Columbia, Md., native has increased that to eight hours by following the habits of his roommate, Grant.
“He goes to sleep early all the time, so I’m like, ‘I guess it’s now I should go to sleep,’ ” Atkins said.
Grant’s influence on the team should grow even more than helping Atkins get proper rest. Brey said he wants Grant to take more shots, and he plans to use the Bowie, Md., native at point guard at times to give Atkins a break.
It is a role Grant is ready to take on for the Irish after Atkins, and he played the point on opposite teams during summer workouts.
“That is something I definitely worked on all summer being able to be aggressive scoring wise but at the same time create for other people on my team,” Grant said. “I’m definitely getting there being more aggressive, going to the basket.”