BROOKLYN, N.Y. – When Notre Dame freshman Rex Pflueger was in high school at national powerhouse Mater Dei, he missed a tip-in during a playoff game his team went on to lose.
“I always wished I got that back,” Pflueger said Sunday evening.
Pflueger may not have a time machine, but Sunday night’s game against Stephen F. Austin provided him with the next best thing.
After Demetrius Jackson missed a runner off the side of the backboard and Zach Auguste’s attempted putback rolled around the rim and fell off, Pflueger got his right hand onto the ball and managed to tip it back up and into the basket with 1.5 seconds remaining, lifting the sixth-seeded Fighting Irish to a heart-stopping 76-75 victory over No. 14 Stephen F. Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
“Now that this has happened,” Pflueger said, “it’s made up for it.”
It was a fitting finish to a fantastic game, one that saw both teams making big plays throughout and that, at various points of the second half, both teams appeared to have clinched the victory.
That was particularly true for the Lumberjacks, who looked well on their way to a second-straight upset win over a power conference foe when senior star Thomas Walkup buried a pair of free throws with 2:05 remaining to give Stephen F. Austin a 75-70 lead.
But Notre Dame chipped away, getting a layup and a pair of free throws from Jackson, who led the Fighting Irish with 18 points, to close Stephen F. Austin’s lead to 75-74 with 47 seconds remaining. When the Lumberjacks brought the ball up the court, there was only one player who was ever going to shoot the ball.
“We were putting the ball in Tom’s hands,” Stephen F. Austin coach Brad Underwood said, referring to Walkup.
It’s hard to blame him, considering Walkup had 33 of the Lumberjacks’ 70 points in Friday’s win over No. 3 West Virginia, and finished Sunday’s game with 21 points, five rebounds and five assists in 27 minutes. But when Walkup drove into the lane on that final offensive possession, his shot missed, and after teammate Ty Charles grabbed an offensive rebound but couldn’t convert the putback, Auguste came down with the ball for Notre Dame with 20 seconds remaining.
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey elected not to call timeout, instead putting the ball into the hands of Jackson – a likely lottery pick in June’s NBA Draft. But, like Walkup, Jackson dribbled into the lane to try and get up a shot, but his was nowhere close to going in, actually hitting the side of the backboard and bouncing out in front of the basket.
Next up was Auguste, who got two hands on the ball and tried to put it up and in while falling backward, but his shot was short. Luckily for Notre Dame, though, Pflueger had snuck in from the left corner when Jackson drove down the opposite side, and had positioned himself next to Charles under the basket as Auguste’s shot went up.
From there, he used his left arm to shield Charles away from the ball, and then tipped it up to convert not only his first basket of the game – but of the entire weekend. Still, the play didn’t come as a huge surprise to the Fighting Irish.
“I mean, he does stuff like that in practice all the time,” Brey said of Pflueger. “So it’s not kind of out of left field.”
Even after Pflueger’s putback, there were still 1.5 seconds for Stephen F. Austin to try and pull off a miracle finish. But after the ball was inbounded to Clide Geffrard, his three-quarter court heave at the buzzer sailed past the backboard as the buzzer sounded, sending the Notre Dame players, coaches and fans into euphoric celebrations while the Lumberjacks were left stunned at the outcome.
It was a cruel way for Stephen F. Austin’s season to end. Between dismantling West Virginia Friday and controlling long stretches of Sunday’s game, the Lumberjacks – who came into Sunday’s game having won 21 in a row, with their last loss coming to the University of Alabama-Birmingham on Dec. 29 – more than proved their worth.
“I think that’s what this tournament is about: for mid-majors to get in here and beat these high majors,” said Walkup, who became an Internet sensation over the last 72 hours thanks to a combination of his play and his uncanny resemblance to Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper. “That’s what makes the tournament so fun, is the upsets. I think that’s what made it a blast for us.”
“I think we proved we belong, and I think that this team has known they belong all year,” said Underwood, who is likely to be a hot coaching candidate this spring after winning two NCAA tournament games in three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. “Stephen F. Austin is here to stay.”
Just not in this tournament, thanks to Rex Pflueger making good on his second chance.
“Are you kidding me?” Brey said. “Are you freakin’ kidding me? That was unbelievable.
“God, that was fun.”