Rex Pflueger’s tip-in sends Notre Dame to second straight Sweet 16
Alex Carson | Monday, March 21, 2016
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Sixth-seeded Notre Dame was in a bind Sunday afternoon at Barclays Center. The Irish were down 75-70 to No. 14-seeded Stephen F. Austin with two minutes to play, searching for someone to save their season.
Junior guard Demetrius Jackson hit a layup with 1:34 left, drained two free throws with 47 seconds to play and after the Irish got a third successive stop defensively, looked to win the game for Notre Dame.
He drove, with the game on the line, but his wild shot didn’t come close. Senior forward Zach Auguste, who was a perfect 8-for-8 from the field, grabbed the rebound and tried for a put-back, but he too was unable to get the job done.
But there stood freshman guard Rex Pflueger.
The 6-foot-6 native of Dana Point, California, didn’t score all day.
Until it mattered most.
Pflueger got a touch to the ball and tipped in the game-winner with 1.5 seconds left, sending Notre Dame (23-11, 11-7 ACC) past No. 14 seed Stephen F. Austin (28-6, 18-0 Southland), 76-75, and into Friday’s Sweet 16 in Philadelphia.
“I just saw the ball come off and I just attacked it and luckily it went in,” Pflueger said.
“I just wanted to attack, be aggressive and try and get it up on the rim and make a shot,” Jackson said. “That’s why you’ve got a team. My teammates were able to get there.”
“I can’t thank Rex enough for finishing that,” Auguste said. “The ball was missed, I went up, was aggressive on the glass, tried to draw a foul and got some contact, missed my layup. Then I fell, and I just see the ball go through the net and I look and it was Rex, the one that tipped it in, and I couldn’t believe it.
“ … Rex had to remind me we had to play some defense, there’s still some time left. We got back in it and then they miss the shot and it was the game.”
“When I saw it go in, I just think I blacked out,” sophomore guard Matt Farrell said. “I jumped up and [sophomore forward Martinas Geben] caught me.”
“Rex plays volleyball in the summertime, so he was playing some volleyball on the backboard,” Jackson said.
For Irish head coach Mike Brey, the final minute of the game reflected lessons learned in Notre Dame’s 68-66 Elite Eight loss to Kentucky last year.
“We had a similar situation in the Kentucky game and we set up for a 2-for-1 and we didn’t do it,” Brey said. “We said after that game, ‘Any time we have that situation, we’re gonna go 2-for-1.’ [Assistant coach] Martin Inglesby was great reminding me before I went in the huddle and it worked out great for us because we wanted to be in a position to have that last shot.
“[Demetrius] gets to the foul line, sticks ‘em, great defensive possession. Zach got that rebound, I looked up, 20 seconds [left]. Someone yelled, ‘Call timeout,’ I said, ‘Shut the hell up. We’re not calling timeout.’ We’re gonna play ‘cause you wanna take advantage of a little chaos and because of chaos, we were able to get the tip.”
Once the Lumberjacks got ahead 73-70 with 3:35 to play, Stephen F. Austin went to a patented Brey tactic: The burn.
And while it shortened the number of possessions left, it also slowed the pace of the game — one that had become frantic during a 20-8 Lumberjacks run that swung a seven-point Irish lead into a five-point deficit.
Notre Dame’s defense responded though, giving up just two points on Stephen F. Austin’s final four possessions.
“We may not be a great defensive team overall — or some people may say that — but just getting timely stops,” junior forward V.J. Beachem said. “When we need to, we always feel like we can rely on our offense. So if we can get stops, it makes everything easier.”
It set the stage for Jackson, who was aggressive all night, throwing down a vicious dunk in the second half, to push the issue on the final two offensive possessions to ensure the Irish weren’t going home this weekend.
“[I was] just really determined, wanted to bring a sense of urgency, play with heart, play with passion and give it all I had,” Jackson said after finishing with a team-high 18 points.
When Notre Dame opened up a little breathing room by way of a seven-point lead with nine minutes to play, the Lumberjacks pulled right back: Senior guard/forward Thomas Walkup drew three fouls in one possession that finished with an and-1 before senior guard Demetrious Floyd drained two 3-pointers to tie the game, 64-64.
It was a Floyd 3-pointer that pushed the Lumberjacks ahead with 3:35 to play, setting the stage for the game’s finale.
Pflueger’s tip-in to win the game will likely overshadow strong performances from Beachem, who followed a perfect shooting night Friday with a 15-point game Sunday, and senior forward Zach Auguste, who notched his 21st double-double of the season with 16 points and 15 rebounds, including a few big boards down the stretch.
For Beachem, who struggled in the tournament last year, succeeding this time around is special.
“It’s meant a lot,” Beachem said. “[I’ve] just really been blessed with the opportunity to play in the NCAA tournament again after everything that I went through last March and blessed to be able to perform at this level.”
Auguste deflected credit for yet another double-double, saying Sunday’s performance was a team one.
“I gotta give a lot of credit to my teammates, my brothers,” Auguste said. “They distributed the ball very well.”
Notre Dame handled Stephen F. Austin’s pressure well, turning the ball over just four times in the first half en route to a 42-41 halftime advantage and 13 times overall — the Lumberjacks forced the most turnovers per game in the NCAA this season.
“They were a great defensive team and they like to turn people over” Jackson said. “I think we did a solid job handling the pressure. We had turnovers here and there but we really moved onto the next play really quick.”
With the win, Notre Dame will make back-to-back Sweet 16 trips for the first time since 1979, when head coach Digger Phelps’ Irish capped a run of six straight trips to the regional semifinals.
“As a senior, a lot of questions had been raised, ‘How are you guys gonna come back from last year? What are you gonna do from last year?’” Auguste said. “Everybody talks about the past. … Really just being a part of this legacy and this tradition and trying to make a run has been amazing.”
The Irish move on to play seventh-seeded Wisconsin on Friday — but they aren’t content with simply going to Philadelphia.
“It’s a great feeling,” Beachem said.
“But we’re not done yet.”