Notebook: Stitches can't slow Notre Dame's Rex Pflueger

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

BUFFALO, N.Y. – One quick thought rolled through the head of Notre Dame sophomore guard Rex Pflueger as it was being tended to by medical personnel early Thursday afternoon.

Someone get a selfie of it.

The California kid thought it looked pretty sweet. Social media ought to see it.

“It felt like I was in surgery in that room,” Pflueger said. “I had three doctors around me. I had a bright light (in his face). I thought it was real cool, talking the whole time trying to keep it light-hearted.

“It was a little bit of an experience.”

Pflueger absorbed an elbow to the left side of his head just below his hairline in the first half of Thursday’s opening-round NCAA Tournament game between No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 12 Princeton at KeyBank Center. He needed six stitches to close the wound.

“I’m not a big fan,” Pflueger said of the first-time experience. “All those needles going into your head – literally. But stuff happens. I was mad at first, but I realized stuff happens and I just bounced out of it.”

Irish coach Mike Brey hoped his team would as well. And they did with a 60-58 victory to send them into the second round for a third-straight season.

“Pflueger gets dinged and is bleeding, I thought, ‘God, I don’t know about today?’” Brey said. “Is today going to be a weird day?”

Pflueger was popped by a Princeton player early in the first half. The minute it happened, he knew it was going to be bad. Pflueger and trainer Skip Meyer headed immediately to the locker room. Pflueger sprinted back out onto the floor and into an Irish huddle not much later during a timeout.

Pflueger played 28 minutes with four points and two rebounds in Notre Dame’s 60-58 victory. Both of his baskets came after the injury.

It was appropriate the game was played in an NHL arena. Pflueger looked afterward like he went a couple rounds with the enforcer for the Buffalo Sabres.

But the cut and subsequent medical treatment didn’t do much to mess up Pflueger’s hair-do.

“I think the hair’s kind of helping keep it out of sight,” Pflueger said. “It’s just a little cut. I’ll be fine.”

Foul-line focus

Notre Dame entered postseason the top free-throw shooting team in the country at 79.9 percent. On Thursday, the Irish staggered to a 14-of-21 showing (66.7 percent).

It’s the third time in the last six games that the Irish have finished under 67 percent from the foul line.

Power forward Bonzie Colson (.790 for the year) made six of 10. He twice split free throws, and missed a pair in the second half after bumping knees with a Princeton defender and falling hard to the floor.

“I don’t know what happened,” Colson said. “That something where we need to be better, lock in and get back in our routine. We’ll be better from there.”

Scramble situation

Brey really liked how Notre Dame held Princeton to 25.8 percent (8-of-31) from 3, including 3-of-14 in the second half.

But one particular play gave Irish defense fits all day. When the Tigers would drive it hard at the gut of the Irish defense, they usually would get a really good look at a corner 3.

An uncontested corner 3. Left corner. Right corner. Didn't matter. Open look. Good look.

That’s what happened with Notre Dame up nine and under nine minutes remaining when Princeton guard Devin Cannady connected on a corner 3, then was fouled by Matt Farrell, to complete the four-point play.

“Somebody driving down the middle of the lane, that backside man, it’s pretty much his job to try and come up and help,” said senior captain V.J. Beachem. “But it’s so tough when they have shooters out there who can knock them down the way they do.”

Déjà vu

No matter how Cannady’s last-second 3-pointer attempt would go Thursday — and it wound up not falling — Pflueger made absolutely certain that he and the Irish had to keep competing until the final horn.

Just because Cannady might miss — and he did — didn’t necessarily mean the game was over and all was well.

“I’ve been in a situation like that on the opposite side,” Pflueger said. “I know those second-chance points are big. My team understood that as well. We just crashed the glass, knowing that if it came off, we had to get that rebound.”

Last March, in a second-round NCAA Tournament game against Stephen F. Austin, Pflueger tipped back a missed shot with 1.5 seconds remaining to give the Irish a one-point victory.

Buffalo bits

• Thursday marked the 10th time this season that Notre Dame has been involved in a game decided by five or fewer points. The Irish are 8-2 in those games.

• Notre Dame senior captains V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia combined to shoot 4-of-21 (19 percent) from the floor, 1-of-5 from 3. Beachem tied his season low with two points. Vasturia had 10, including eight rebounds, one shy of his season and career high.

• Irish forward Matt Ryan busted loose for six points, including two dunks, in nine first-half minutes. He did not play in the second.

• Notre Dame finished with a (+3) rebounding advantage, 36-33, for the second-straight game.

• Given this city’s proximity to Canada — basically over the downtown Peace Bridge — KeyBank Center played the national anthem of Canada before Thursday’s first game. Notre Dame freshman guard Nikola Djogo is a native of Hamilton, Ontario.

“That’s the song of the century,” a smiling Djogo said afterward. “Great song.”

• Thursday’s win was No. 97 for the Irish senior class of Beachem and Vasturia. That ties the four-year school record for career wins, set by the 2013 class.

• The Irish had only six turnovers — one in the second half. It was the ninth-straight time and 10th in the last 12 games the Irish have finished with fewer than 10 turnovers.

• Notre Dame’s 60 points are the fewest in an NCAA Tournament win since 1987, when it beat TCU, 58-57.

• Princeton set a school record for 3-pointers attempted in an NCAA Tournament game (31). The previous high was 29 in 2001 against North Carolina. The Tigers made only eight (25.8 percent).

• Thursday was Princeton’s first loss since Dec. 20 at Monmouth – a span of 86 days.

• Notre Dame is 39-38 all-time in the NCAA Tournament. Princeton is 13-29.

• Notre Dame has won its NCAA opener for three-straight seasons for the first time since 1977-79.