Noie: Bad news overshadows big win for Notre Dame

Staff reports
ND Insider

INDIANAPOLIS

Three years of frustrating finishes at the annual Crossroads Classic were supposed to be flushed with perhaps the most complete 40 minutes of basketball Notre Dame had played to date Saturday afternoon.

There was so much to like about the effort against Purdue in the eighth annual, mid-December Saturday doubleheader at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Notre Dame finally secured a solid start with a sizzling shooting display. The Irish got good efforts from all angles. And in both halves. It was more than enough to snap a three-year Crossroads losing streak with an 88-80 victory.

Yet the focus afterward wasn’t on the progress that was made, but what may have been lost with a potential season-ending injury to senior captain Rex Pflueger, whose future will be determined in the coming days with an MRI on his left knee.

The results are not expected to be encouraging.

For the fourth time in as many Crossroads, Notre Dame led by double digits. For the first time since 2014, also against Purdue, it left on the winning side of the scoreboard. A win over a Big Ten team after two psyche-rattling losses (to Oklahoma and UCLA) was one of the best possible ways to end a tough and trying week. Like, these guys in blue and white and gold could be pretty good. It was starting to come together. You could sense it. You could see it.

But the dread over what’s likely coming in the next day or so quickly washed away any satisfaction of success. Wiped it completely out.

Nothing about the game really mattered. Not the 21 points from junior power forward John Mooney. Not the 19 from sophomore D.J. Harvey. Not the career-high 11 from freshman guard Dane Goodwin. Not the fact that the Irish controlled this one and led for nearly 34 minutes, once by as many as 15. Not the 20 assists on 26 field goals. Not going 14-of-16 from the foul line over the final 92 seconds.

Nothing.

Nothing but what occurred with 5:35 remaining in the second half. That’s when Pflueger, the team’s only senior captain, crumpled under the Purdue basket following a Trevion Williams basket. Pflueger immediately signaled for help from athletic trainer Skip Meyer on the Irish bench. That’s never a good sign. Maybe the worst. Pflueger was helped off the floor and back to the locker room, then returned with an ace bandage holding a bag of ice against his left knee.

There at the end of the bench with his sweat-soaked jersey peeled off, Pflueger kept doing what captains do. Encouraging. Leading. Believing.

“Huddle white!”

“Here we go white!”

“Let’s go white!”

Sitting and watching and rooting on his teammates for the final 1:37 might be the closest Pflueger gets to the court the rest of the season, and maybe, the rest of his college career. Concern inside the Irish program is that the knee injury is potentially devastating.

“There’s fear that it’s an ACL,” coach Mike Brey said. “I’m sick. We may lose him for the year. It’s unbelievable. It’s like, ‘Come on now.’

“I think we’re prepared for the worst.”

The worst on the heels of one of Pflueger’s best overall games, a week after returning to California where he played in front of friends and family for the first time in his college career. Having struggled so much early in the season with his role and his leadership and everything associated with wanting it so badly for this team — his team — Pflueger had settled into a nice spot over the past couple of games.

On Saturday, he was the one initiating much of the offense as Notre Dame opened by making 12 of its first 15 shots. He found Juwan Durham for dunks. He hit Harvey for open shots. He was driving the Irish offense to places it hadn’t been all year.

He was playing. Then, he was limping.

Pflueger was not available for comment afterward, but did jump on Twitter late Saturday afternoon.

“Unbelievable team win today. Thankful for every opportunity,” wrote Pflueger, who added shamrock and peace emojis to the message.

Pflueger finished with seven points, three rebounds and two steals. He also had a career-high 10 assists. Arguably his best overall game, and maybe, sadly, his last.

“As the clock was ticking down and we had it won, it was probably the most disappointed I was going to shake hands,” Brey said. “I’m like, that’s just not fair.”

Not fair to this team. Not fair to this season. Not again. Not after losing three main guys — Bonzie Colson, Matt Farrell and Harvey — for extended time to injuries last season. Now, barely 24 hours removed from news that freshman guard Robby Carmody will miss the rest of the year with a labrum tear in his left shoulder, the Irish likely will lose Pflueger for some time. Maybe for good.

“It’s tough with all the stuff we’ve gone through with Robby and Rex,” Goodwin said. “It’s tough, but it’s all part of it. How we battle through that and how we learn from it will ultimately determine our success.”

Typical of Pflueger, he refused to sit in the locker room and sulk. He had to be back on the bench for his guys. That didn’t go unnoticed as Notre Dame closed it out from the foul line. The guys who went to the line, out of the corners of their eyes, could see Pflueger at the end of the bench.

“That just shows the type of leader he is,” said junior guard T.J. Gibbs. “He’s our leader on and off the court. We just know he’s going to be good, whether he’s going to be playing or not.”

An Irish program that battled ridiculous levels of adversity last season deserved to soak up some good stuff Saturday. The Irish played really well. They shot it well. They moved it better. They flowed. This should have been another example of Brey’s proverbial “something to build on” moments.

Notre Dame was getting better, and maybe just getting going.

Now it’s about to all get blown up with another serious injury to another key guy. Maybe, for the second season in a row, THE key guy.

Ugh.

NOTRE DAME 88, PURDUE 80

PURDUE (6-5): Haarms 1-1 0-0 2, Eifert 3-6 0-0 8, Edwards 8-22 7-8 27, Eastern 1-3 1-4 3, Cline 5-13 2-3 15, Wheeler 2-6 0-0 4, Boudreaux 4-7 1-3 9, Williams 5-6 0-0 10, Stefanovic 0-2 0-0 0, Hunter 1-4 0-0 2. Totals 30-70 11-18 80.

NOTRE DAME (7-3): Mooney 6-8 6-7 21, Gibbs 3-11 3-4 12, Pflueger 2-4 2-2 7, Hubb 1-6 5-6 7, Harvey 6-10 4-4 19, Durham 3-5 2-2 8, Laszewski 1-1 1-1 3, Djogo 0-0 0-0 0, Goodwin 4-5 2-3 11. Totals 26-50 25-29 88.

Halftime—Notre Dame 36-29. 3-Point Goals—Purdue 9-29 (Edwards 4-10, Cline 3-9, Eifert 2-3, Hunter 0-1, Stefanovic 0-2, Wheeler 0-2, Boudreaux 0-2), Notre Dame 11-21 (Mooney 3-3, Gibbs 3-5, Harvey 3-5, Goodwin 1-2, Pflueger 1-3, Hubb 0-3). Fouled Out—Eastern, Eifert. Rebounds—Purdue 37 (Boudreaux 7), Notre Dame 29 (Mooney 7). Assists—Purdue 17 (Cline 5), Notre Dame 20 (Pflueger 10). Total Fouls—Purdue 21, Notre Dame 15.

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger (0) goes to the basket against Purdue’s Sasha Stefanovic during Saturday’s game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Purdue's Trevion Williams (50) shoots against Notre Dame's John Mooney during Saturday's game in Indianapolis. Notre Dame won 88-80.