Never-say-die Irish headed to Philly

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – The players returning from the Elite 8 trip have been asked what they would do for an encore. A rookie joined the veterans with an emphatic answer.

BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Rex Pflueger’s background in beach volleyball came in handy Sunday afternoon on the Barclays Center hardwood.

“I’ve played a little sand volleyball in my time,” beamed Pflueger after his tip-in with 1.5 seconds remaining lifted Notre Dame to a 76-75 victory over Stephen F. Austin to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second year in a row.

“I think that might have helped a little bit.”

Pflueger’s timing was impeccable.

On the court for defensive purposes, Pflueger remained on the floor despite the Irish gaining possession off a missed shot and with two Irish timeouts left.

Head coach Mike Brey is well aware of Pflueger’s multi-faceted talents, and amidst the uproar of the Barclays Center arena, he didn’t want to tamp down the emotion.

“It was chaotic, and if we couldn’t get it to Demetrius (Jackson) within five seconds, I would have called timeout,” Brey said. “I just wanted to get it in his hands and drive it.

“He got it on the board, Z (Zach Auguste) kept it alive, and if I would have called timeout, I would have out-thought myself. I wouldn’t have had a bouncy guy on the court to tip it in.”

Pflueger wasn’t around for Notre Dame’s Elite Eight run a year ago, but he still lived it.

“I remember watching it the whole way through,” said Pflueger of Notre Dame’s 2015 run. “I felt like I was with them the whole time.”

Pflueger believed good things would happen if Jackson had control of the basketball in the final possession.

“I knew the ball was in DJ’s hand and I knew he was going to make something happen,” Pflueger said. “Once ZA got the rebound, I thought it was over. I thought he was going to make that layup. Then I saw the ball go up and I attacked. Luckily it went in.”

Brey might not have been thinking about Pflueger’s volleyball game at that time, but he’s seen the 6-foot-6 leaper in action off the basketball court.

“He plays beach volleyball up in Dana Point, (Calif.),” Brey said. “He lives right on the beach, and him and his dad and his brother, who’s a senior at USC, go down to the beach to play volleyball.

“He’s a great athlete. He’s bouncy. His vertical is maybe the highest on the team. So him flying around making plays, he’s been doing that since stepping on campus.”

A confluence of being in the right place at the right time, a couple of key defensive stands after falling behind 75-70, and last year’s near-run to the Final Four certainly played a role in Notre Dame’s fifth NCAA tournament victory in the last two years, which is a first since the 1977-78/1978-79 trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight respectively.

“There’s no question that with this group, winning tough games in the NCAA tournament last year and the nucleus of guys that did it last year, they believe they should do that,” Brey said.

The last eight years certainly have been much different than the first eight under Brey at Notre Dame. The Irish were 3-8 in the NCAA tournament during the first half of his 16-year reign with the Irish. They are 13-7 since, including 5-1 in the last two seasons.

“We had trouble in my early years here getting confident enough to win and advance,” Brey said. “It’s a culture right now. When you glimpse ahead to next year, we’ve got a lot of guys coming back that will have tasted advancing for two years.”

If the Irish have their say, this season is far from over. Notre Dame moves on to Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia Friday for a clash against the winner of tonight’s game between East Regional No. 7 seed Wisconsin vs. No. 2 seed Xavier in St. Louis.

For those who were a part of it last year, this is even sweeter, particularly for a guy like Jackson.

“This is his team now,” said Brey, pointing out the difference compared to last year’s team led by Pat Connaughton and Jerian Grant.

“It’s really special to be a part of the things we’ve been able to accomplish here,” said Jackson, who finished with a team-high 18 points, including a basket and two free throws in the last minute-and-a-half that whittled Stephen F. Austin’s late five-point lead down to one.

“With my class, that was something we used to talk about when we were seniors in high school. Going out and competing, winning and changing the culture of our post-season play.”

For V.J. Beachem, the individual difference between last year and this year is off-the-chart striking. Beachem played just 49 minutes in the seven post-season games (three ACC tournament, four NCAA) last year, scoring a mere 14 points.

In four post-season games this year – Duke and North Carolina in the ACC tournament, and NCAA tournament games against Michigan and Stephen F. Austin – Beachem has scored 59 points on 24-of-39 shooting, including 13-of-25 from three-point land.

“It’s a great feeling for me to perform at this level,” Beachem said. “I heard a lot about last March during the off-season, about how far we could have gone had I been playing well then. Just to perform now has really been a blessing.

“I had a lot of talks with myself and God, asking Him to get the opportunity again to be able to perform to the level I was capable of. To do it has just been a great feeling, and for our team to get back to where we were last year has just been great.”

Speaking of great, the Irish don’t return to this level without the consistently outstanding play of Auguste, who has been a dominant performer the last month.

In the last 14 games, Auguste has averaged 15.2 points and 12.1 rebounds per game, including 15 rebounds per game in the four post-season outings.

“A lot of questions were raised like, ‘How are you guys going to come back from last year? What are you going to do after last year?’” said Auguste following his 16-point, 15-rebound game against the Lumberjacks.

“Being a part of this legacy and tradition, and trying to make another run, it’s been amazing. When I come back in 10, 20 years from now, I know I will have played a big role.”

The role in the roll continues.

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