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Rex Pflueger helps No. 14 Notre Dame flow, roll to exhibition basketball victory

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – If digging in and defending would help Rex Pflueger coming into a college basketball program that was coming off an Atlantic Coast Conference championship the previous year, then that’s what he would do.

And then he did. For his first two years at Notre Dame (2015-17), Pflueger was known first, second and often third for what he did without the ball. Guarding. Defending. Competing.

But there would be a time in Pflueger’s collegiate career when he would be asked and expected to do more than just defend. Create. Make plays. Score. Rebound. Lead. Start. Help everything flow. Play. And, oh, yeah, still defend.

When that time came, Pflueger promised to be ready.

He’s ready.

Pflueger did a little of everything Tuesday to the tune of 17 points, six rebounds, three assists and a steal to no turnovers as No. 14 Notre Dame wrapped exhibition play with a 90-46 victory over Cardinal Stritch, an NAIA Division II team form Milwaukee, at Purcell Pavilion.

“I definitely always thought of my game as a versatile player,” Pflueger said. “I never wanted to be just one-sided with my game. I always like to do a little bit of everything every game.”

Pflueger has played with better pace and poise the first three exhibition games, maybe more than at any point in his first two seasons. He knows he’s going to start. Knows he’s going to play major minutes. He logged 31 on Tuesday. Knows opportunities are going to knock. Knows that he has the confidence in his game to answer.

“Overall, the skill that I’ve built for two years at Notre Dame watching veteran guys like Demetrius Jackson, Steve Vasturia, I had the opportunity to learn and watch them,” Pflueger said. “Kind of take parts of their game and put them into mine.

“Having that role out there makes feel more comfortable.”

And not just scoring. Irish coach Mike Brey insisted last week after Pflueger went for only five points against Bethel College that it’s more than just shooting and scoring for him. Like Vasturia did for nearly four years, Pflueger just plays. And matters.

Just having No. 0 out there makes the head coach a lot less nervous. And a lot more confident. Like, the Irish are going to be all right, as long as Pflueger’s flowing.

“The guy does a little bit of everything. He’s involved in every play on the defensive end,” Brey said. “He’s one of those guys, it’s hard to have him out of the game. He makes things happen on both ends of the floor for us.”

Bonzie Colson added 19 points, 14 rebounds, four steals and three blocks for an Irish team that got 70 points from its starters, led by as many as 47 and never trailed. It was more of a complete effort than the Irish offered the first time out. It was nice to see. It was much-needed. From all angles.

“When you get a couple games under your belt, you get a feel for it and helps show who you are,” Colson said. “This was great for us. We communicated well defensively and did a great job understanding what to do.

“When we do things like that, I think we can be really special.”

In the opening four minutes, Pflueger secured a steal on the Wolves’ first possession. He snared an offensive rebound on the third Irish possession. He attacked the rim, got fouled and went to the line on the fourth. He gathered two more defensive rebounds and later capped it all with an easy bucket.

He seemingly was everywhere. Doing something. Doing everything. That’s what Pflueger’s done to date, and likely will do a lot this regular season. Scoring points may not matter. He’s in line for big minutes regardless.

How good, how active, how effective was Pflueger early? Thirteen minutes into a first half that saw the Irish lead by 19 points at the break, Pflueger had already hit a (+19) on the plus/minus rating. Six minutes into the second half, he was up to (+35). What does that mean? Simple – when Pflueger was on the floor, the Irish were doing a whole lot right.

Like with its first two exhibitions against local schools Holy Cross and Bethel, Notre Dame didn’t need long to eliminate any intrigue, at least from a scoreboard sense.

The Irish jumped to a double-digit lead less than seven minutes in after Martinas Geben delivered a two-handed dunk off a follow-up miss of a Colson 3-pointer. And speaking of 3s, Notre Dame opened exhibition play a combined 5-for-40 before Farrell connected on the team’s first on the possession following Geben’s follow dunk. That gave the Irish a 15-2 lead.

The deeper the Irish have worked in exhibition, the more the regular-season rotation seems to have taken shape. The starting five has remained the same, as has the sixth man – junior power Elijah Burns. Freshman D.J. Harvey has worked his way into the second man off the bench role followed by sophomore power forward John Mooney.

That leaves the Irish a little bigger for longer stretches, longer than Brey might like, but for now, that works. So it stays. For now.

Burns had four points, four rebounds and two assists in 15 minutes. Looking more comfortable with every minute he’s on the floor, Harvey added 10 points and three rebounds in 19 minutes.

“There’s a lot to work with there,” Brey said of Harvey.

Mooney played 11 minutes with five points and seven rebounds. He was active and flying to the backboard for seemingly every loose ball.

“I was impressed with how Johnny played,” Brey said. “I thought Johnny was calming down a little bit. He’s on my mind.”

Those are the eight right now with Nik Djogo at No. 9 and Austin Torres, who returned Tuesday from a stress reaction in his left leg, at No. 10.

“It was a little shorter tonight,” Brey said of the rotation. “You’re trying to get ready for how you’re going to substitute on Saturday.”

That would be the season opener at DePaul, which cannot come a moment too soon.

“The real stuff starts,” Brey said.

Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger delivers a 3-pointer during Tuesday's exhibition victory over Cardinal Stritch. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

NOTRE DAME 90, CARDINAL STRITCH 46

At Purcell Pavilion

CARDINAL STRITCH (46): Nemanja Knezevic 4 0-0 10; Damian Stoneking 3 0-0 6; Frederik Benzon 2 0-0 4; Carlos Knox 2 2-2 6; COnnor Lemmons 2 0-0 6; Chris Stovall 0 0-0 0; Xavier Edwards 0 0-0 0; Dave Mlanchnik 1 0-0 2; Austen Lee 1 0-0 3; Jerique Walker 1 0-0 3; Tyler Matsen 0 0-0 0; Jedrzej Leszczynski 1 0-0 2. TOTALS: 19 2-2 46.

NOTRE DAME (90): Martinas Geben 4 2-3 10; Bonzie Colson 7 4-6 19; Rex Pflueger 6 3-3 17; Matt Farrell 4 0-0 10; T.J. Gibbs 5 1-2 14; Austin Torres 0 1-2 1; D.J. Harvey 4 2-4 10; Elijah Burns 2 0-0 4; Nikola Djogo 0 0-0 0; Matt Gregory 0 0-0 0; Liam Nelligan 0 0-0 0; John Mooney 2 0-0 5. TOTALS: 34 13-20 90.

Halftime score: Notre Dame 41, Cardinal Stritch 22. Field goal shooting: Cardinal Stritch 19-of-61 (31.1 percent); Notre Dame 34-of-71 (47.9 percent). 3-point field goals: Cardinal Stritch 6-of-23 (Knezevic 2, Lemmons 2, Lee, Walker); Notre Dame 9-of-27 (Gibbs 3, Farrell 2, Pflueger 2, Mooney 1, Colson 1). Rebounds: Cardinal Stritch 36 (Knezevic 9); Notre Dame 50 (Colson 14). Assists: Cardinal Stritch 10 (Lemmons 3); Notre Dame 19 (Farrell 6). Turnovers: Cardinal Stritch 17; Notre Dame 7. Steals: Cardinal Stritch 3; Notre Dame 8. A: 6,070.