Value of Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger continues to soar, show

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – It has quickly progressed past the point of being surprised about anything Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger does on the basketball court.

Pflueger proved the previous Saturday when offered an opportunity at Duke that he had something to offer. He showed more of the same Wednesday in the win over Virginia Tech.

On Saturday, his game and his confidence took another massive leap in the 76-49 victory over Boston College.

When Notre Dame lost junior point guard Demetrius Jackson to a pulled right hamstring less than three minutes into the game, another guard needed to step in and deliver the big minutes and do the tough stuff on defense that have become commonplace from the Irish captain. Enter the 6-foot-6, 198-pound Pflueger, who answered another big moment early in his college basketball career with another big effort.

Pflueger scored a career-high 11 points in a career-high 32 minutes off the bench. He again was a physical, consistent presence on defense and a calming, controlling one as the secondary ball-handler as Notre Dame (14-5; 5-2) ran its Atlantic Coast Conference win streak to four.

Regardless of his role, Pflueger carries the confidence that he belongs. Now he really belongs.

“The past games have given me more confidence in my ability,” Pflueger said. “Hopefully that will carry over to the next game and the next game.”

Irish coach Mike Brey believes it will. He talked in the week since the Duke game of how key a guy Pflueger has been and will be. Saturday was just another example that he’s really needed, especially if Jackson is sidelined for an extended stretch.

“I’m really excited about him,” Brey said. “Rex continues to get better.”

Had the Irish required another handler in an emergency situation earlier in the year, sophomore Matt Farrell likely would have received the call. But Pflueger has grabbed that spot in the rotation, mainly because of his ability to guard and guard really well. His textbook defense – feet moving, hands up, chest on guys and quick to recover if needed - hounded Boston College guard Eli Carter into a 5-of-13 game from the field, 1-for-6 in the second half.

“The job he did on Carter, especially in the second half, was fabulous,” Brey said. “The way he guards, it was clinic kind of stuff.”

Pflueger’s defense allowed Steve Vasturia to rotate into the role of initiating the offense with Jackson out. Had this scenario presented itself a month ago – a key guard out — the Irish may have been in big trouble with Vasturia expected to handle and score and guard.

Now Pflueger can help – in all areas. That includes on offense, where he continues to figure out how best to fit his game.

Pflueger knocked in a corner 3 off a Vasturia find, converted a short jumper in the paint even added a fade jumper. He tied his career high with two assists. He also wasn’t shy about probing the defense, attacking and drawing fouls.

Pflueger made a career-high four free throws.

“I have to become a little bit more aggressive,” Pflueger said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean shooting more. It means attacking the basket and looking for open areas to get my teammates open.”

Focused free throws

When Notre Dame was so shaky and seemingly unsure of itself from the foul line earlier this season, Brey insisted and maybe even hoped, that it would eventually work itself out.

It’s worked out.

Able to get to the bonus quickly Saturday, the Irish made a living at the free throw line. Of its 27 attempts, Notre Dame made 25 for a sizzling percentage of 92.6. That included 16-of-16 in the second half and a career-high nine points on 10 attempts from the attacking, more aggressive Vasturia.

“It’s become a huge weapon,” Brey said. “You know why? We don’t work on it in practice. We don’t do it anymore.”

No more making x amount in x attempts or everybody needing to make one or everyone runs. Brey has instead let anybody who’s not feeling good about their shot get better on their time.

“We haven’t worked on it as a team; I tell them to go shoot them on their own,” Brey said. “Sometimes you can overcoach that and overemphasize that and then guys get tight.”

Notre Dame connected on 28-of-32 (87.5 percent) in the Jan. 13 win over Georgia Tech, 21-of-30 (70 percent) in the win at Duke and 20-of-28 (71.4 percent) in Wednesday’s win over Virginia Tech.

Murphy’s moment

Looking under the spotlight at halfcourt while in front of an announced sellout crowd as he did in patrolling the paint during an All-American collegiate career, former Notre Dame power forward Troy Murphy joined select company during Saturday’s halftime.

The seventh-leading scorer in school history, Murphy became the eighth member of the school’s Ring of Honor. The banner with his name and No. 3 jersey took its place along the likes of Austin Carr, Adrian Dantley, Luke Harangody and Tom Hawkins.

Murphy insisted earlier in the week that he had not written a speech and would speak off the cuff. He also spoke from the heart for 2:44.

“I’m humbled by this entire experience,” he said. “To be included in this prestigious group is quite an honor. It’s something that means a great deal to me.

“It’s been a great honor representing our Lady’s university.”

Murphy received his Ring of Honor ring from Brey in front of the current Irish team following Friday’s practice. He then spent Friday night sharing stories with some of his former teammates, including close friend David Graves, who made the trip from Lexington, Ky., and current coordinator of basketball operations Harold Swanagan.

Murphy insisted that he was back in his hotel by 1 a.m., and that any craziness with his former teammates was kept to a minimum. Why? Everyone's just older.

“Swan’s got a minivan now,” he joked.

Baseline bits

• Junior swingman V.J. Beachem was one of five Irish to score double figures. He finished with 14 points. That snapped a four-game streak where Beachem failed to hit double figures.

• The 49 points and 28.6 field goal percentage allowed by Notre Dame are all-time lows for an ACC game.

• Notre Dame’s bench has outscored the opposition’s by a combined 85-27 over the last three games.

• Sophomore power forward Bonzie Colson tied his career best with three assists.

• Freshman walk-on forward Chad Holtz, the grandson of former Irish football coach Lou Holtz, saw the first action of his collegiate career. Holtz played one minute and grabbed one rebound.

• Senior power forward Zach Auguste registered his 11th double-double this season and 16th of his career with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

• Notre Dame has beaten Boston College twice this season by 28 and 27 points – the two most lopsided ACC wins in school history.

• The Irish have won seven straight and 11 of 12 over the Eagles dating back to 1999.