Mooney, Pflueger help Irish win defensive battle at Clemson
Observer Staff Report | Monday, February 10, 2020
Averaging 5.2 points per game, and having never averaged more than 8.1 per game, to suggest that Notre Dame graduate student guard Rex Pflueger is a mainstay in the Irish lineup for his offensive prowess would be laughable. Pflueger plays a gritty brand of basketball and leads the Notre Dame defense, which, although inconsistent, has shown an ability to play at an elite level this year.
But on Sunday night, when the shots just weren’t falling for Notre Dame, the Irish (15-8, 6-6 ACC) turned to their fifth-year player to spark them, and Pflueger responded with a career night as Notre Dame won their fourth straight game for a 61-57 road conference victory over the Clemson Tigers. Shooting just 30% from beyond the arc on the year, Pflueger was a perfect 4-4 on triples for the night. His sizzling performance from deep paved the way for Pflueger to put up 18 points on 6-8 shooting, including a pair of extremely clutch shots in the final minutes. Senior forward John Mooney chipped in with his 19th double-double, posting 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Notre Dame led for much of the first half, but they never were able to pull away, as both offenses went cold for long stretches of time. Although their suffocating defense made things difficult on the Tigers, Notre Dame could not get their offense going. Pflueger hit back-to-back three-pointers to stake Notre Dame to a 25-23 lead, but the Irish scored just two more points in the final 2:47, as Clemson ended the sloppy first half with a 29-27 advantage.
The Tigers hit a few shots to start the second half, while the Irish stayed cold and at the first media timeout, Notre Dame trailed by seven. Shortly after, Notre Dame ripped off an 8-0 spurt to surge back into the lead with Mooney cashing in on an open look from deep to give the Irish a 39-38 advantage with 11:21 left.
The second half slogged on, with both teams missing shockingly large amounts of open shots as Notre Dame scored just four points in nearly six minutes of game clock, but with under six minutes to go, they still found themselves tied at 43 points apiece. There, Mooney came up big again as he took a pass in the right corner and offered up a triple that found nothing but net. He was fouled on the play and made the free throw to give Notre Dame a four-point lead. On the next Irish trip down the floor, sophomore guard Prentiss Hubb got his only points of the night with a high looping shot from well beyond the arc that dropped through for a 50-45 Notre Dame lead.
Clemson rallied to tie it, but then Pflueger turned it on. Up 52-50 with the shot clock winding down, Pflueger picked up his dribble and stepped back for a tough fadeaway on the left shoulder and drilled it to restore a two-possession lead for the Irish. After Clemson got back within two, both teams entered another scoring drought with a few turnovers and a bevy of missed shots. But with 1:07 remaining on the clock, Pflueger would hit one more clutch shot, rising up and over his defender to hit a contested three as Notre Dame took a 57-52 lead. Clemson drew within three points once more, but the Irish kept the Tigers at bay, as some great passing led to a wide-open sophomore guard Nate Laszewski layup and a 59-54 lead. Mooney cashed in twice more from the free throw line to ice the game, as Clemson hit a buzzer-beating three-pointer to account for the 61-57 final score.
It was a big win for Notre Dame, as they improved to 6-6 in ACC play with their fourth straight victory. Notre Dame is still on the outside looking in of the NCAA tournament picture, but the Irish will have a chance to continue making a case with road contests against Virginia and Duke looming this week. They stay on the road this week, heading to Virginia next. Tip-off with the Cavaliers is set for Tuesday at 9 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena.