SOUTH BEND — Stepping on to the main floor of Purcell Pavilion a good 96 minutes before Tuesday’s tip, Notre Dame graduate student guard Rex Pflueger took it all in, and took it slowly.
He dribbled a basketball in a crouched position with his left hand near midcourt. He adjusted his earbuds and then searched his phone for just the right tune to get him in the right basketball mood. He took — and missed — his first three shots, all standstill, from the baseline before getting a few to fall. He shook hands with a young fan in an expensive courtside seat.
When the house lights went down and the music went up, he was announced in his usual starting lineup spot for Notre Dame’s exhibition opener against Division III Capital. Wearing a full-length white sleeve to protect his surgically-reconstructed left knee, Pflueger played 14 scoreless minutes. They were small steps but big ones for someone who last had been on a basketball court last December.
Notre Dame led by as many as 29 en route to a 72-43 victory. It didn’t always flow, the shots didn’t fall at a high clip, but after last season’s struggles, the Irish — and Pflueger — had to start somewhere. Tuesday was that start.
Senior power forwards Juwan Durham and John Mooney led four Irish in double figures, each with 12 points. Sophomore guard Dane Goodwin and senior guard Nik Djogo each added 10.
Pflueger drove it hard through the lane and fell after an off-balance shot less than two minutes in, then saw his open wing 3 rim around and out a short time later. He was on the ground again later after a steal and missed layup.
“I knew I was going to fall right away,” Pflueger said. “Just some of those pre-game jitters, excited being back out there.”
Pflueger played the first six-plus minutes before giving way to Goodwin, whose father, Damon, is in his 26th season as head coach at Capital.
“Definitely a bit different,” Goodwin said. “But I enjoyed it. Pretty cool experience.”
Goodwin connected on his first shot — a baseline jumper — early in the first half. He added a drive and scoop layup to tie it at 16, then drove it again to give the Irish a 20-16 lead. Later in the half, Goodwin drove the lane and looked to dish to the wing, but charged. The first person to signal the foul? His dad. Thanks, pop.
“Not surprised,” Goodwin said. “He’s preached that to me and his players down the line.”
Goodwin led all Irish with nine points the first half. Notre Dame led by as many as 12 and was up 10, 35-25, at intermission. The Irish trailed for 4:04 and by as many as four, all in the first half.
Goodwin dribbled the final seconds of the game out before getting in the post-game handshake line and giving his dad a hug.
Pflueger only recently was cleared to go full five-on-five with few restrictions four days prior. He may not fully feel 100 percent until weeks — even months — into this season, but just having him in uniform and not on crutches wearing street clothes at the end of the bench like last season is a big boost as the Irish look to rebound from a 14-19 showing.
“It’s just neat seeing him out there,” said coach Mike Brey. “We’ll keep plugging with him. It’s great having him back. He guards three guys sometimes. He knows how to play.”
The goal for Pflueger was to play 15 minutes. He played 10 in the first half as a starter, then started the second half. He played the first four minutes before calling it a night, finishing with three rebounds, two steals and an assist.
“I was just so happy to be back out there, especially not knowing when I was going to go live,” Pflueger said.
Pflueger passed a knee strength test late last week and didn’t cut it loose in practice until late in the week. He had a bag of ice for the knee afterward, but insisted all was fine.
“I felt good out there,” he said.
Notre Dame was hampered last season by an inability to make shots and avoid going stretches — sometimes extended — without points. The Irish still had to shake that lingering rust Tuesday. They labored over three minutes early in the game without a point. Subtract Mooney’s quick 3-for-3 start and the rest of the Irish opened 2-for-11. Notre Dame made only one of its first nine 3s.
The Irish shot 45.3 percent from the field for the game, 22.2 percent (4-of-18) from 3.
A team hammered by injuries the last two seasons had it hit again Tuesday — somewhat. The Irish were without sophomore power forward Chris Doherty, who recently had his wisdom teeth removed. His absence left the Irish with nine available scholarship players. All nine saw action the first eight-plus minutes.
Brey tinkered with nine lineup combinations the first 20 minutes. He went with two bigs. He went with four guards. He opened with a starting lineup that included two bigs in Mooney and Durham, a combination that was OK on Tuesday but will have to be a lot better in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
A first team all-league preseason pick, Mooney scored seven points the first 4:02, then didn’t score again until 6;10 remained. He just wasn’t needed.
Notre Dame closes exhibition play Friday at home against Bellarmine, ranked No. 2 in preseason in Division II and in transition to going Division I next season. The season opener is closing quickly, arriving Wednesday, Nov. 6 at No. 9 North Carolina.
CAPITAL (43): Reed Brandfield 6; Ganiyu Yahaya 14; Tyler Schreck 6; Cameron Caldwell 2; Joe Hartmann 4; Drew McCollum 0; Griffin Doseck 2; Payton Moyer 3; Ryan Roth 6.
NOTRE DAME (72): Rex Pflueger 0; Prentiss Hubb 8; T.J. Gibbs 9; Juwan Durham 12; John Mooney 12; Nik Djogo 10; Nate Laszewski 2; Dane Goodwin 10; Robby Carmody 9.
Halftime score: Notre Dame 35, Capital 25.
Field goal percentage: Capital 16-for-60 (26.7 percent); Notre Dame 29-for-64 (45.3). 3-point field goals: Capital 7 (Yahaya 4, Roth 2, Moyer); Notre Dame 4 (Mooney, Hubb, Gibbs, Djogo). Rebounds: Capital 38 (Schreck 8); Notre Dame 46 (Mooney 11). Assists: Capital 10 (Schreck 4); Notre Dame 19 (Hubb 6). Total fouls (fouled out): Capital 14 (none); Notre Dame 8 (none). Turnovers: Capital 19 (Caldwell 4, Roth 4); Notre Dame 9 (Mooney 2, Gibbs 2, Goodwin 2). A: 5,040.