Rex Pflueger tip seals another Notre Dame comeback

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

NEW YORK — Watching the madness of the NCAA Tournament unfold every March has been mandatory television viewing for Notre Dame freshman guard Rex Pflueger, who hoped to someday experience one of those moments.

That day arrived late Sunday afternoon and Pflueger, in his second-ever NCAA game, delivered some memorable magic under massive circumstances.

On the floor late in a close contest strictly for defensive purposes, the 6-foot-6 Pflueger slid into some space under the Irish rim during the final few frantic seconds, then used his volleyball skills, his basketball instincts and his 40-plus inch vertical leap to get to a missed shot. With his right hand, he tipped the ball off the backboard and in 1.5 seconds before the Irish season effectively ended.

Boom.

It gave No. 6 seed Notre Dame (23-11) a 76-75 comeback victory over No. 14 Stephen F. Austin (28-6) at a bananas Barclays Center and send the Irish to the Sweet 16 for the second time in as many seasons.

Somewhere, the soundtrack of March Madness — “One Shining Moment” — played.

“The ball is tipped ... and there you are.”

There the Irish are, heading to consecutive Sweet 16s for the first time since 1978-79. Next up in the East Region semifinals is a Friday date against No. 2 Xavier or No. 7 Wisconsin at Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

“Are you kidding me? Are you freakin’ kidding me?” wondered Irish coach Mike Brey afterward. “That was unbelievable. God, that was fun.”

It was Pflueger’s lone basket in a game that featured eight ties and nine lead changes. Notre Dame again roared back from seemingly long odds to erase a five-point deficit with under two minutes remaining.

Survive.

Advance.

“I saw the ball come off and I just attacked it,” Pflueger said. “Luckily it went in. I was stoked.”

Some of his teammates could not say the same. There was chaos in those closing seconds, and even some confusion afterward.

“I don’t even know what happened at the end," said junior guard Steve Vasturia. “It was wild.”

“That’s just an unbelievable play for Rex,” said sophomore guard Matt Farrell. “He’s insanely athletic. He’s always above the rim. When I saw it go in, I think I just blacked out.”

Pflueger needed a few alone moments long after the media left a joyous Irish locker room to let everything that had happened sink in. They’re moving on, and he’s a big reason why.

“It still hasn’t hit me yet,” he said. “I happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

Pflueger had bounced in and out of the game much of the day strictly to help guard Stephen F. Austin swingman Thomas Walkup. Had Brey decided to burn a timeout late, Pflueger might have been out of the game in favor of someone else.

But ….

“Hustle’s part of my game, too,” Pflueger said.

The previous week back on campus, Pflueger reminisced about his most memorable moments watching the tournament. The one that stood out was the near-miss of Butler against Duke in the 2010 championship game.

This one may have topped that one. It was the first time he’s hit a game-winner since the summer before his senior year of high school.

“It’s got to be a little bit better because (Gordon Hayward) missed it,” Pflueger said of the shot that almost won the Bulldogs the national championship. “I got lucky and it went in.”

Lucky?

“Not lucky, but you know what I mean,” he said with a smile. “I crashed the boards, I had a clean tip-in and it went in.”

It was Notre Dame’s third chance at the game-winner.

Down one, the Irish needed a defensive stand just for the chance to possibly extend their season. They then got it after the Lumberjacks missed two chances to go up three in the closing 20 seconds. Zach Auguste grabbed the all-important defensive rebound to set it all up.

Brey thought about calling time out, but decided to let everything play out. He wanted the ball in the hands of guard Demetrius Jackson, who then was in charge of dictating how it all would develop.

Attacking and aggressive all afternoon, Jackson thought he could get to the rim from the right side, but was funneled further and further away from the bucket by two Lumberjacks. Releasing a shot with six seconds remaining, Jackson’s degree-of-difficulty runner from behind the backboard fell way short, but Auguste was there.

He snatched his 15th rebound and tried to get the ball to the rim while falling down.

“I wedged out my guy, got the rebound,” he said. “I went up with it and I fell, missed the shot and all of a sudden I see the ball go through the rim.”

Walkup scored a game-high 21 points for the Lumberjacks, who saw their 21-game win streak snapped with their first loss since late-December. Walkup walked quietly down a back hallway toward the interview room afterward with tears in his eyes. He’ll replay the final sequence through his mind for a long, long time.

One stop, one rebound and the Lumberjacks were off to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history. Now a dream run is over.

“It’s a ball we should have come up with,” Walkup said. “It’s tough to see it go through.''

For the second tournament game in three nights, the Irish were faced with really long odds. On Friday, Notre Dame needed to find a way out of a 12-point halftime deficit to Michigan, then did. On Sunday, the Irish trailed by five late with seemingly everything — the shots, the momentum, the massive crowd — going the Lumberjacks’ way.

Jackson kick-started the comeback. He drove it hard to the hoop and converted a layup to make it 75-72 with 1:34 left. He then went to the free throw line with 47 seconds remaining — a situation he could not remember ever being in — then drained two clutch free throws to bring the Irish within one.

“I just wanted to step up and hit some free throws, sounds pretty simple,” Jackson said. “We just had to find a way to win.”

And what a way it was.

STEPHEN F. AUSTIN (28-6): Walkup 7-13 7-7 21, Holyfield 6-9 2-2 15, Floyd 6-13 0-0 16, Charles 4-9 0-0 9, Pinkney 2-2 0-0 5, Williams 0-2 0-0 0, J. Johnson 0-3 0-0 0, Geffrard 4-13 0-0 9, Cameron 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-64 9-9 75.

NOTRE DAME (23-11): Beachem 6-13 1-1 15, Auguste 8-9 0-2 16, Farrell 3-5 2-2 8, Jackson 6-8 4-4 18, Vasturia 3-11 1-2 9, Pflueger 1-2 0-0 2, Ryan 0-0 0-0 0, Colson 2-3 4-5 8. Totals 29-51 12-16 76.

Halftime_Notre Dame 42-41. 3-Point Goals_Stephen F. Austin 8-27 (Floyd 4-9, Pinkney 1-1, Holyfield 1-3, Charles 1-4, Geffrard 1-5, Walkup 0-2, J. Johnson 0-3), Notre Dame 6-17 (Jackson 2-3, Vasturia 2-5, Beachem 2-8, Farrell 0-1). Fouled Out_None. Rebounds_Stephen F. Austin 27 (Holyfield, Walkup 5), Notre Dame 31 (Auguste 15). Assists_Stephen F. Austin 19 (Pinkney 8), Notre Dame 15 (Vasturia 5). Total Fouls_Stephen F. Austin 15, Notre Dame 12. A_17,401.

tnoie@ndinsider.com

(574) 235-6153

Twitter: @tnoieNDI

Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger, center, and Matt Farrell, left, celebrate with teammates after a second-round win in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 20, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Stephen F. Austin guard Ty Charles hassles Notre Dame sophomore Bonzie Colson during Sunday's second-round NCAA Tournament game at Barclays Center in   Brooklyn, N.Y.AP Photo/KATHY WILLENS