SOUTH BEND — Everything unfolded in a way that he knew that if ever there was a time to take his game back in time, this was it.
So in the second half of Saturday’s game against Georgia Tech, one Notre Dame won 80-72, graduate student guard Rex Pflueger felt like he was back home in Southern California trying to patent his play after his basketball idol, Kobe Bryant.
It was an offensive sequence that Pflueger often found himself in years earlier. In middle school. In high school. On the playground. In AAU. The floor was properly spaced. The ball was in his hands. It beckoned for a move that he’d watch Bryant do hundreds of times. Pflueger backed down guard Jose Alvarado on the right side of the lane. He stayed patient with the plan and had plenty of time and space to pound a dibble, then another.
Pflueger then spun and delivered a Kobe-like fade jumper, one that he’s seldom — if ever — attempted during his collegiate career. He might not shoot another shot like that this season.
“Right away when I got him into the post, I was like, ‘Kobe,’” Pflueger said. “It was pretty fun. I knew I was going to shoot that shot.
“It felt good to see it go in.”
As Pflueger ran down the court to get back in a defensive stance after giving the Irish an eight-point lead, he offered a quick thanks to Bryant, a player whose mural sits above the television in his off-campus residence. Pflueger never met Bryant, but his game, his name, meant so much to him as a kid in California. Pflueger pointed to the sky after his shot and score as if to say, that one’s for you, Mamba.
Afterward, Pflueger exited the arena wearing a purple Lakers jersey with Bryant’s number. It had been a tough week for someone who’s had his share over the last 13 months. Bryant’s death hit Pflueger hard. So much so that he couldn’t sleep one night, so he penned a poem about Bryant that he shared on social media.
It began with, Sometimes, there is no answer...
It ended with, A Legend
Saturday was a good day for Pflueger. For his teammates. For Notre Dame (13-8; 4-6 Atlantic Coast Conference), which won consecutive league games for the first time since February 2018.
While Pflueger was going back in time with an offensive output that saw him score 13 points, which tied his season high, teammate John Mooney continued to do what he’s done for much of the last two years. Dominate the opposition. Be cruel. Be mean. Be really good when he needed to be really good.
“Johnny was Superman,” Irish coach Mike Brey said.
On a day reserved to honor one of the program’s greats — swingman Kelly Tripucka joined the Ring of Honor at halftime — Mooney made it his day. He went over 1,000 career points (now 1,009). He went for his 17th double double with 28 points, which tied his career high, and 10 rebounds. He put the Irish on his back to start the second half and carried them to a comfortable lead.
“My teammates, these guys find me,” Mooney said.
Mooney scored 18 of his 28 in the second half. Pflueger knew that once Mooney started rolling, hitting short shots, 3-pointers and even free throws, that the Yellow Jackets were done. They never had an answer for No. 33.
“Beast,” Pflueger said of Mooney. “Once he turns it on, you can just see the switch flip. That’s when we know we need to find him. When Mooney’s in that mood, we’re just in a great spot.”
A day earlier, Tripucka met with Mooney and counseled him that the big man just had to be better from the foul line. Shooting .614 percent from the line, as he had this season, wasn’t going to cut it.
Mooney made his first eight before missing his last one.
“It was funny,” Mooney said. “He kind of got on me, but it’s just being confident in your stroke.”
Saturday was the fourth straight conference contest that the Irish have scored at least 80 points. They’ve moved it and shared it and shot it more consistently in this stretch than anytime this season. The numbers on the scoreboard — and the two wins — are big proof.
“We’re just harder to guard,” Brey said. “We’re confident offensively.”
Confident, and playing a different way. Notre Dame still begins with two bigs — Mooney and Juwan Durham — in the starting lineup. But as the Irish get deeper into games, Durham spends more time on the bench (he played 10 minutes Saturday) in favor of a perimeter player.
“They kept playing big; we kept playing smaller,” Brey said. “Something had to give.”
That something was this — Notre Dame had more offensive options. There was Mooney and Pflueger. T.J. Gibbs added 19 points. Dane Goodwin delivered 14. Never mind that the Irish were out-rebounded 42-32. With leading scorer Michael Devoe sidelined with a foot injury, the Yellow Jackets just weren’t going to make enough shots outside of Alvardo (25 points) to win.
Games against Georgia Tech historically have been grinds for Notre Dame. A struggle to get into the 60s. A rumor to get to 70. Not Saturday. With Pflueger going and Mooney going, it was that kind of a free-flowing day for the Irish, who led for 25:53. The first few minutes of the second half featured four ties and four lead changes, an indication that this one might again hinge on game situations. After all, it was a league game, so why not another close one?
Mooney and Pflueger and the Irish didn’t allow that to happen. They needed a game where it wasn’t close at the end. Where they didn’t need to make a shot or get a stop. Where Mooney was the best player on the court and had plenty of company in the scoring department. It didn’t matter that the Irish went the final three minutes without a basket. They didn’t need one.
Notre Dame’s three-game league homestand ends Wednesday against Pittsburgh.
“We feel good,” Pflueger said. “But we’re nowhere near where we want to be right now.”
Piggy-backing Wednesday’s win and another Saturday, they’re closer.
“We’re a confident group right now,” Mooney said.
GEORGIA TECH (10-12): Alvarado 10-19 2-4 25, Parham 1-4 0-0 3, Banks 5-8 3-4 13, Wright 8-17 1-2 17, Usher 3-13 2-2 8, Cole 3-7 0-0 6, Moore 0-6 0-0 0. Totals 30-74 8-12 72.
NOTRE DAME (13-8): Gibbs 5-9 7-8 19, Hubb 1-6 1-2 3, Mooney 9-18 8-9 28, Pflueger 3-3 5-6 13, Goodwin 5-8 2-3 14, Laszewski 1-3 0-0 3, Durham 0-3 0-0 0, Djogo 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 24-51 23-28 80.
Halftime_Notre Dame 36-33. 3-Point Goals_Georgia Tech 4-18 (Alvarado 3-7, Parham 1-3, Cole 0-1, Moore 0-1, Wright 0-2, Usher 0-4), Notre Dame 9-24 (Pflueger 2-2, Gibbs 2-4, Goodwin 2-4, Mooney 2-5, Laszewski 1-3, Djogo 0-1, Hubb 0-5). Fouled Out_Wright. Rebounds_Georgia Tech 38 (Banks 9), Notre Dame 28 (Mooney 10). Assists_Georgia Tech 9 (Wright 4), Notre Dame 13 (Hubb 5). Total Fouls_Georgia Tech 22, Notre Dame 9.