Notebook: Rex Pflueger delivers like he belongs in road win
DURHAM, N.C. — Once the pass somehow had found its way through the lane, through a maze of hands and legs and bodies, Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger took a quick look at the shot clock that was set to expire and had one thought.
“I remember catching it and seeing it at two,” Pflueger said of the pass that arrived from Demetrius Jackson. “I was like, ‘Yay, I get to shoot it.’ So I took one dribble and shot it.”
In a 95-91 victory of big shots and bigger moments, the seldom-used reserve guard stepped forward to deliver one of the biggest. Notre Dame led by three points with 3:08 remaining, with the Cameron Indoor Stadium crowd sensing a decisive run ready to be unleashed by the home team, when Pflueger let go of the 3-pointer.
It fell. Just like that, the Irish advantage went to six as Pflueger back-pedaled down the court as if he expected to do something special in a special game all along. Mean mugging, he called it. But, really he did. Even after hitting only two 3s all season.
Pflueger believed that he belonged in this game. In this atmosphere. He had played in many a big game during his final two years of high school at California prep power house Mater Dei. Unable to secure big minutes months into his collegiate career, Pflueger kept telling himself to stay ready.
On Saturday, he was.
“I just knew I had to defend and play as hard as I could,” Pflueger said. “It’s a huge step in our program to come out here and play together.”
In what would become Notre Dame’s biggest win of the season at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Pflueger played a major role. A starring role. He scored a career-high seven points and played a career-high 23 minutes. When the game got tight and it was time to make the winning plays, Irish coach Mike Brey rolled with Pflueger over junior V.J. Beachem and freshman Mat Ryan, both of whom battled day-long foul trouble and ineffectiveness.
“He’s been trending (that) way,” Brey said. “He guards. He’s physical. I may choke him on some of the shots he takes, but we’ll work on that.”
Pflueger may have been a little too juiced early in the first half when he pulled up for a deep transition 3 after blocking a shot. It missed. Badly. Brey wasn’t too happy. But when the Irish needed his 3 later, he delivered.
“He’s a fearless kid and he believes,” Brey said. “That was a big bucket. Rex believes he should be out there in a big game.
“You find out a lot about a Rex Pflueger on a day like this.”
Bringing his team into the building where he spent eight seasons as an assistant coach, where he helped Mike Krzyzewski win a pair of national championships, Brey long insisted that it was just another game on the schedule, just another chance for his program to get a conference win.
In a quiet moment in a locker room stairwell late Saturday afternoon, Brey finally admitted that yeah, winning at Cameron Indoor carried a little more weight than any other league game. This one was big. This one was special. For myriad reasons.
“It’s really neat to win here,” Brey said. “”I always wondered what it would be like to win in this building.”
“I’ve had a lot of really fun wins, but this is right up there,” Brey said. “I’ve seen it be a House of Horrors from the (home) bench and the visitor’s bench last year.
“I may have a cocktail tonight.”
Brey didn’t let his emotions get the best of him in the locker room, but his players could tell this one was special to him.
“It means a lot to him,” said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “To come back here and play against that team is fun. What he’s able to do on the sideline, keeping us loose, we had fun playing for him.”
For the second time in three league road trips, Notre Dame had to overcome some major travel issues.
On Friday, the Irish were scheduled to leave South Bend around 5 p.m. and arrive at Raleigh-Durham International Airport just after 6. From there, they would have a shoot-around at Cameron Indoor Stadium, in part, to get the freshmen a chance to see the place for the first time.
But mechanical issues grounded the original Irish flight. The Notre Dame traveling party then returned to campus, went back to South Bend International Airport some five hours later and finally departed just after 10 p.m.
Waiting on the same plane that took the Tennessee men’s basketball team to Starkville, Miss., to arrive before the flight south, the Irish didn’t get to their hotel until after midnight, some 14 hours before tip.
“It was just a pain in the (butt),” Brey said of the travel issues. “We’ve had some bad luck. I was worn out.”
Brey might have been tired, but he wouldn’t let it affect his team. He got back on the bus for the late-night trip back to the airport and asked his players to come up with some of their craziest AAU travel stories.
They had plenty.
“When we were playing AAU, we’d be getting into a city at 5 in the morning and playing at 8 in the morning,” Pflueger said. "Getting in at 12 and playing at two was a luxury.”
Coming back from Virginia following its league opener loss earlier this month, Notre Dame was forced to stay in the Charlottesville area an additional night, again because of mechanical issues with its charter flight. Brey said afterward that it felt like the Irish had been in the Commonwealth for a week.
Notre Dame landed Saturday back in South Bend around 7:20 p.m.
Brey typically is the first to dismiss bench points as the “most overrated” on the final stat sheet.
Then he looked at Saturday’s box score and saw that thanks to the career-best efforts of Bonzie Colson and Pflueger, Notre Dame finished with a staggering and season-high 38 bench points to Duke’s 2.
Still an overrated stat, Coach?
“I’ll take them today,” he said. “That’s the secret weapon, Bonzie Colson. Maybe have to start him next time. I don’t know.”
• Irish senior power forward Zach Auguste became the 57th player in school history to hit for at least 1,000 career points when he converted a bucket and a free throw early in the second half. He finished with nine points and a game-high 14 rebounds. He has 1,002 career points.
• Notre Dame won the rebounding battle, 38-33, including 21-16 in the second half. That allowed the Irish to score 50 points in the paint compared to 24 for the Blue Devils.
• The Irish turned it over only twice in the second half.
• Colson’s 31-point effort marked the first time in school history than an Irish player has hit for at least 30 points in an ACC game.
• Three Irish scored at least 20 points in a game for the first time since March 8, 2007 against Syracuse. In that one, Russell Carter went for 24 points, Colin Falls 23 and Luke Harangody 20. On Saturday, Colson scored 31, Demetrius Jackson had 24 and Vasturia a career-high 22.
• Krzyzewski is 20-4 all-time when facing a head coach who once served on his staff as an assistant. All four of the losses have come against Brey’s Irish.
• Former Notre Dame and North Carolina coach Matt Doherty attended Saturday’s game as a scout for the Indiana Pacers.