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Men’s Basketball

DelVecchio: With strong leadership, youth won’t plague team performance

| Wednesday, December 5, 2018

In their first game of the season away from home, Notre Dame came up short against an experienced Oklahoma basketball team by a score of 85-80. Despite the loss, it is clear that the Irish have made great strides as a unit early on in the season, specifically in terms of their leadership and play inside.

This year’s Irish team is far from experienced, with captain Rex Pflueger standing in as the lone senior on the team. While the team is laden with young talent, inexperience can result in a talented team failing to be able to close out games or perform to its potential. Yet, that has not been the case thus far for Notre Dame.

Led by Pflueger and fellow captain and junior guard T.J. Gibbs, this year’s Irish team has proved that it won’t allow its youth to plague its performances, and that was exemplified in Notre Dame’s hard-fought effort on Tuesday night.

Connery McFadden | The Observer
Irish junior guard T.J. Gibbs looks to pass the ball during Notre Dame’s 67-56 win over Duquesne on Nov. 20 at Purcell Pavilion.

To play in your first road game of the season is one thing, but to have it be under the bright lights in Madison Square Garden is a completely different animal. With the help of Pflueger and Gibbs, the Irish didn’t let the spotlight get to them, and they played a hard-fought game that wasn’t decided until the final minutes.

Gibbs led all Irish scorers with 18 points on 6-of-16 shooting, to go along with three rebounds and three assists. Pflueger had a tough night shooting the ball, finishing with only two points, but he had a significant impact on the game, finishing with a stat line of six rebounds, six assists, and three steals. While the two captains both played well themselves, the biggest takeaway from the game was the leadership they displayed on the court. At every stoppage in play you could see — and hear — Pflueger and Gibbs talking to and instructing their young teammates. It’s one thing to lead by example, but to take the time to motivate and talk to younger teammates is something that can’t be taught.

In every team huddle, Gibbs and Pflueger make their voices known, and it is evident that such articulations had an impact on the team as a whole. It’s easy to give in when the opposition goes on a run, especially down the stretch, but the Irish did not let that happen. Despite a 12-2 run to close out the first half for Oklahoma, the Irish came out firing in the second half and kept it close for the rest of the way. The fact that the Irish only lost by five becomes even more notable when you factor in the fact that the Sooners shot 52 percent from long-range (15-for-29), whereas the Irish shot a measly 28 percent (7-for-25) from deep. Together, Pflueger and Gibbs form a solid base to which the Irish youngsters can turn when things go south, and a resource to get advice from at every turn in the game.

Additionally, the exceptional play from Notre Dame’s big men, junior forward John Mooney and junior transfer forward Juwan Durham, continued against the Sooners. Mooney finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field, and Durham had 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting, to go along with three rebounds and three blocks. After Durham’s breakout performance against the Illini last week, another solid performance against Oklahoma’s small front proved that Durham isn’t just a one-hit wonder, and hints at a promising future for the 6-foot-11-inch big man. Meanwhile, Mooney continued to improve on Tuesday night. In his third season with the Irish, Mooney has double his scoring average and has upped his rebounding average from 3.9 a year ago to 8.9 this season.

While it’s true that the Irish are still a young team, they are led by two more than competent leaders in Pflueger and Gibbs, a backcourt duo that is complemented well by Mooney and Durham on the blocks.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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