SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It should have surprised absolutely no one that the biggest offensive rebound of Notre Dame’s tottering basketball season came down in the opportunistic hands of Rex Pflueger.
“It’s amazing the plays — winning plays — Rex Pflueger makes,” Irish coach Mike Brey said after the 77-76 victory against North Carolina on Monday.
When John Mooney missed a left-handed hook in the lane over big Garrison Brooks in the waning seconds, Notre Dame appeared headed for its 11th loss. Instead, Pflueger came out of nowhere to snatch the ball away from UNC’s Christian Keeling, his fellow fifth-year graduate player.
Seemingly in one motion, Pflueger corralled the ball and whipped a pass out top to sophomore forward Nate Laszewski. As he had back in November to rescue Notre Dame from certain defeat against mid-major Toledo, “Late-Game Nate” drained a desperation three-pointer.
This time, instead of sending the game to overtime, Laszewski’s shot meant instant victory. As he and Pflueger slapped hands repeatedly in celebration at the other end of the court, Laszewski reminded the team’s co-captain and emotional leader of his role in the Toledo moment as well.
“I said to Rex he’s passed to me on both of them,” Laszewski said. “I don’t know, maybe it’s Rex’s passes or something. It’s an awesome feeling.”
Fourteen months since blowing out his left knee against Purdue, Pflueger is having a nightly impact on a program trying not to miss the NCAA Tournament for a third consecutive season for the first time since Years 4-6 of Brey’s two decades at the helm.
Pflueger’s determination has become even greater since his mother, Rebecca, lost her fight with cancer last Sept. 14. She was a month shy of her 54th birthday.
He has a tattoo of her heartbeat on his left wrist.
“Was Pflueger unbelievable down the stretch?” Brey said. “Defensively, with the steals, and there he is, getting his hands on the offensive rebound, making the play. It’s amazing. We needed it bad and we were dead in the water, and I’m really proud that we figured out how to escape.”
Trailing by 15 points with nine minutes left, the Irish got hot behind the shooting of guards Prentiss Hubb and T.J. Gibbs. Pflueger missed a potential game-tying three-point try with 2:30 left, but he kept pushing for the equalizer — and more — as Notre Dame shook off an embarrassing 34-point loss at Duke two days earlier.
Pflueger’s sixth and final rebound of the night proved to be the most vital.
“Rex just got Christian and just pushed him right out of the way,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “I’m not saying that in a negative manner. He wanted the ball a lot more and got a big-time rebound for them and threw it out, and they made a huge shot.”
Early in his career, the 6-6 swingman from Dana Point, California, gained a reputation for dramatic tip-ins. As a freshman in March 2016, Pflueger’s tip-in against Stephen F. Austin sent Notre Dame to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
As a junior two years later, he came through again at Syracuse’s massive Carrier Dome in a 51-49 victory in January 2018.
Then came Monday night in a must-win situation against UNC. Asked if he’d ever had a player quite like Pflueger, Brey shook his head and smiled.
“Not really,” Brey said. “He’s really unique. His scoring is a bonus, but he passes and finds people. His instincts defensively are just fabulous and his nose for the ball . . . when it’s loose, it’s amazing. And he’s playing a little sore, and I give him a lot of credit.”