CLEMSON, S.C. — Back when he was an underclassman with two good knees, Notre Dame graduate student guard Rex Pflueger often stuck his tongue out at the bench, at his teammates, at anyone, when everything was going good for him in games.
The tongue was seen Sunday night against Clemson.
Pflueger scored a game- and season-high 18 points, including a key 3-pointer with 67 seconds remaining to give the Irish a five-point lead, as Notre Dame ran its Atlantic Coast Conference win streak to four following a 61-57 victory over Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum.
Pfleuger’s 18 were two shy of his career high.
“I was really thrilled for him,” said Irish coach Mike Brey. “Nobody deserves it more. The kid wants it so bad. His leadership in the huddles down the stretch, fabulous.”
It was a season low for points in league play for Notre Dame, which came into the contest having scored at least 80 in each of its previous five ACC games. The Irish struggled to shoot it (42 percent from the field, 35.7 percent from 3) but not defend. Clemson shot 35.7 percent from the field, 26.5 percent from 3.
“I’m very proud of our group to get a road win and do some tough stuff at the end to escape,” Brey said.
Notre Dame (15-8; 6-6 ACC) twice trailed by as many as seven in the second half. The Irish took their first lead of the second half, 39-38, on a John Mooney 3 from the top of the key with 11:23 remaining. That gave him 10 points and 11 rebounds for his 19th double double of the season and 40th of his career. Mooney finished with 16 points and 11 rebounds.
Four straight wins in league play is Notre Dame’s longest conference run of success since winning six straight late in 2016-17. Notre Dame also returned to .500 in conference play for the first time this season and first time since Jan. 16, 2018 when an overtime home league loss to Louisville dropped Notre Dame to 3-3. It’s since been a long uphill league climb.
“We’ve got a real mature team,” Pflueger said. “We know that every single ACC game is going to be a difficult one. Our mentality going in is it might be an ugly win, but we’ve got to fight no matter what it is”
The Irish have won three league road games after going 1-9 away from home last season.
The win moved Notre Dame into a tie for sixth place with North Carolina State. The Wolfpack hold the tie-breaker based on their regular-season league win last month.
Sunday marked the start of the most important stretch of the regular season for Notre Dame. It was the first of four games in nine days, including three in a row on the road. The Irish traveling party was scheduled to leave South Carolina late Sunday and fly straight to Charlottesville, Va., in advance of Tuesday night’s late tip (9 p.m.) against defending national champion Virginia.
Clemson (11-12; 5-8) got a career-high 16 points from freshman guard Alex Hemenway from Newburgh, Ind., who was averaging 3.8 points, with a season total of 23. Hemenway had scored 17 total points in five ACC games. His two free throws tied it at 50 with 4:04 left. The Tigers were without forward Aamir Simms, the team’s leading scorer (13.4 ppg.) and rebounder (7.4) who was out with the flu.
“Nobody feels sorry for anybody in this league,” Brey said. “It’s a brutal league.”
Even without Simms, the Tigers found an offensive flow. They went up two, then four, then seven. An offense that had been humming through its three-game home stand, Notre Dame struggled to find a gear. Who would score? Where would it get shots? What could it do possession to possession? Everything seemed so difficult.
Notre Dame didn’t crack the 40s until 9:08 remained following a T.J. Gibbs floater down the lane tied it at 41.
Pflueger had it going from 3 in the first half. He came into the contest averaging one 3 a game, then connected on his first 3 for a team-high nine points at half. Pflueger shushed the Littlejohn Coliseum crowd after the second one, then mean mugged them after his third one.
The Irish game day schedule was altered slightly after their typical shoot-around was held in Clemson’s practice facility. Littlejohn was unavailable during the day because it hosted a women’s basketball game between Clemson and Boston College. Notre Dame did practice at Littlejohn early Saturday evening.
One of the three officials who worked Sunday’s game as assigned by the ACC was John Gaffney. Two weeks ago Monday, Notre Dame was fined $20,000 by the league office after Brey’s critical comments following a loss at Florida State. During his post-game statement, Brey called out Gaffney as an official he felt wasn’t giving his team a fair shake in ACC games.
Sunday was Notre Dame’s first road game since the loss at Florida State.
Gaffney worked Saturday’s game between Virginia and Louisville in Kentucky. Keith Kimble and Brian Dorsey were the other two officials Sunday.
On Notre Dame’s first possession, Pflueger hit Gaffney with a bounce pass (unintentionally) that bounced out of bounds after trying to find Gibbs to cause the team’s first turnover. It was the first of three turnovers the first five possessions for the Irish.
• NOTRE DAME 61, CLEMSON 57
At Clemson, S.C.
NOTRE DAME (61): Durham 3-5 2-2 8, Mooney 5-12 3-3 16, Gibbs 4-7 0-0 10, Hubb 1-6 0-1 3, Pflueger 6-7 2-2 18, Goodwin 1-7 2-2 4, Laszewski 1-5 0-0 2, Djogo 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 21-50 9-10 61.
CLEMSON (57): Jemison 2-6 0-0 4, Dawes 2-5 0-0 5, Newman 1-5 4-4 6, Trapp 3-8 0-0 7, Mack 6-16 2-3 16, Hemenway 5-8 2-2 16, Tyson 1-5 0-0 3, Moore 0-1 0-0 0, Scott 0-2 0-0 0. Totals 20-56 8-9 57.
Halftime_Clemson 29-27. 3-Point Goals_Notre Dame 10-28 (Pflueger 4-4, Mooney 3-8, Gibbs 2-4, Hubb 1-4, Durham 0-1, Laszewski 0-3, Goodwin 0-4), Clemson 9-34 (Hemenway 4-7, Mack 2-8, Dawes 1-3, Trapp 1-5, Tyson 1-5, Moore 0-1, Scott 0-1, Newman 0-4). Fouled Out_Pflueger. Rebounds_Notre Dame 30 (Mooney 11), Clemson 29 (Jemison 7). Assists_Notre Dame 14 (Durham, Mooney, Gibbs 3), Clemson 12 (Trapp 4). Total Fouls_Notre Dame 12, Clemson 13.