SOUTH BEND — For maybe the only time over the last six weeks, what happened in this one and what it all meant in the big college basketball picture didn’t matter much Saturday for Notre Dame.
Where would a win place the Irish in the Atlantic Coast Conference standings? Didn’t matter. How would it affect its NCAA tournament push? Didn’t matter. How it would carry over to the next regular-season game? That really didn’t matter
After a record 20 league games stretched over the entire five months of the regular season, there were no more after this one. Everything ended, so all that really mattered was one team goal reached any way possible at home against Virginia Tech.
On Senior Day, send the three guys playing their final regular-season home game at Purcell Pavilion out in style. Out with smiles. And hugs. Even a few tears. Send them out together. Send them out the right way, which is what Notre Dame did in a 64-56 victory over a Virginia Tech team that started shooting crookedly and never did straighten out.
Then celebrate on the floor after the horn.
“That,” said Irish coach Mike Brey, “was really big.”
Fifty-four seconds remained when three subs at the scorer’s table checked in for seniors T.J. Gibbs and John Mooney and graduate student Rex Pflueger. Mooney left the game as if his shorts were smoldering. Gone, just like that. Gibbs and Pflueger lingered. For once, they were in no hurry. Time to soak it all in one last time. Together.
Even after the post-game pressers and showers and everything else players do after games was done, their families and friends remained at one end of the arena an hour after the final horn. Typically, players and family members and friends are gone ASAP, scattering out into the winter night. Not Saturday. Mooney’s family was the last to leave, toting flowers and his Fathead up the tunnel and into the early evening.
This season might not have gone the way the three wanted, but they made sure Saturday did. It was victory No. 104 for them at Notre Dame.
The less said about the particulars in this one, the better. It was hard to watch. At one point, the teams combined to shoot 7-of-38 from the field. Virginia Tech missed 16 straight shots. It missed 19 of its first 21. Notre Dame didn’t break 40 points until 12:30 remained. Mooney didn’t score until 9:28 was left.
Afterward, when the Irish had closed the book on a 19-12, 10-10 ACC finish, Pflueger went somewhere he hadn’t ventured all season. Deep into his soul. He spoke from the heart. He allowed his emotions to surface. He was real. He was genuine. He was vulnerable.
This wasn’t how Pflueger ever planned for his Senior Day to go. First off, it was a year late. Had he not shredded his left knee in December 2018, Pflueger would be long gone from South Bend. Maybe playing overseas. Or working in private business. Or even watching this one on television. Instead, he was granted a fifth year of eligibility and was back for one more run alongside Gibbs and Mooney.
Still, Senior Day wasn’t the same, for the most obvious of reasons. Pflueger’s mother, Rebecca, lost her fight with brain cancer last fall. Instead of walking out arm in arm with her, Pflueger was flanked by his father, Russell, and his older brother, Devon.
Just before the national anthem ended, he kissed his mother’s heartbeat tattoo on the inside of his left wrist. After a game in which he scored seven points and grabbed a season-high eight rebounds, Pflueger took the microphone and thanked everyone for what he termed the best ride of his life.
He thanked teammates. He thanked his father. His brother. He had to thank one more person who wasn’t there, but in many ways, he believed was. That’s when his hand shook as he held the microphone. That’s when his voice cracked. That’s when the tears welled. He thanked his mother. His everything.
“Without her love and strength, I wouldn’t be here today,” Pflueger said. “I love you momma.”
Pflueger was fine with everyone seeing his tears and hearing his words.
“The thing about emotions is, I don’t think they’re a bad thing at all,” he said. “I love them. They really make you feel a lot of life’s joy and every single type of one — sadness, happy. I don’t like to show them, but I like feeling them.
“Today was something special for me. I felt every type of emotion out there. It was probably one of the most special days of my life.”
Standing nearby, his suit coat long discarded, Brey thought the same thought he has every Senior Day or Senior Night while listening to his veteran guys take the house microphone one more time. It’s not always about wins or losses or finishing inside the top half of the league standings in this program. Yeah, you better win and win a lot or there will be vitriol. Sometimes, as in the case of the last three seasons, a lot of it.
But go to Notre Dame and it’s about so much more. It’s about how Gibbs and Mooney and Pflueger each carried themselves when it was time to speak. They did it with class. They did with confidence. They did it in style. That they were also able to do it after a win, yeah, that was even better.
“When they speak and express themselves, it’s really what our program and our university and our mission’s all about,” Brey said. “To see the three of them get up on the microphone and talk from the heart with class, I said to our young guys, that’s what our program’s all about.”
Brey even opened his presser with a little levity. No rants. No prolonged awkward silences. No clipped responses or long pauses. We’ve endured enough of those.
Brey circled back to the long-standing break-even mark joke that floats every fall and that so many take so seriously. On Saturday, the Irish finally got to 10-10, the first time under him they’ve actually finished .500 in league play.
“We finally did it in my 20th year,” Brey said. “Of course 14 of those, we had a winning (league) record. Anyways, I was thinking about that all week.”
It was a long regular-season, but the Irish also have come a long way from last season. Many want to dismiss that. Pretend that it didn’t happen. Last place last year. Seventh place this year. Three league wins to 10. An increase of seven. That’s pretty impressive. Take that and run with it, however long that run lasts next week in North Carolina at the ACC tournament.
“We’ll go to Greensboro and let it rip, man,” Brey said. “What the heck.”
VIRGINIA TECH (56): Horne 5-9 0-0 14, Alleyne 2-5 4-4 9, Bede 1-2 0-0 2, Radford 4-8 0-0 8, Nolley 3-12 0-2 7, Cattoor 4-7 0-0 12, Cone 0-8 0-0 0, Wilkins 2-7 0-0 4, Ojiako 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-58 4-6 56.
NOTRE DAME (64): Durham 1-5 0-0 2, Mooney 2-8 2-2 7, Gibbs 7-12 3-3 22, Hubb 2-6 1-3 6, Pflueger 2-6 2-2 7, Goodwin 6-12 0-0 13, Laszewski 3-4 0-1 7, Djogo 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 23-54 8-11 64.
Halftime_Notre Dame 28-17. 3-Point Goals_Virginia Tech 10-32 (Cattoor 4-7, Horne 4-8, Alleyne 1-2, Nolley 1-5, Wilkins 0-3, Cone 0-7), Notre Dame 10-26 (Gibbs 5-8, Laszewski 1-2, Mooney 1-3, Goodwin 1-4, Hubb 1-4, Pflueger 1-4, Djogo 0-1). Rebounds_Virginia Tech 27 (Horne, Radford 7), Notre Dame 42 (Mooney 13). Assists_Virginia Tech 12 (Bede 5), Notre Dame 14 (Hubb 6). Total Fouls_Virginia Tech 14, Notre Dame 6.