NEW YORK – Notre Dame and Stephen F. Austin went shot-for-shot in an NCAA tournament game that was about as good as it gets. The power school against the unflinching underdog. The lead never was more than seven for either team.
That it came down to the last shot was no surprise. The hero, though, might have been the most unlikely player on the floor to make a game-winner.
Rex Pflueger tapped in a rebound with 1.5 seconds left and Notre Dame survived 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin 76-75 on Sunday to reach the NCAA round of 16 for the second consecutive season.
Down one with 17.5 seconds left, sixth-seed Notre Dame grabbed an SFA rebound and put the ball in the hands of Demetrius Jackson. The point guard drove to the basket and missed. Zach Auguste followed for the Irish (23-11) but could not convert. The ball slipped off the rim and with one hand Pflueger flipped it in.
Not only had Pflueger not scored in the game to that point, he hadn’t had a field goal since March 5.
“I just crashed the board,” Pflueger said. “I thought Zach was going to make that last layup, but coach always emphasizes going to the board hard, especially in situations like that, and it just turned out for the best for us.”
A long heave from Stephen F. Austin (28-6) went wide and Notre Dame celebrated by swarming Pflueger.
“Are you kidding me? Are you freakin’ kidding me? That was unbelievable,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
The Irish advance to play Wisconsin on Friday in the East Regional at Philadelphia.
The Irish and Lumberjacks put on a show to match Beyonce at Barclays Center, with Brey’s longtime friend, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, sitting not far behind the Notre Dame bench.
“I’ve been watching them all year, and they’re very tough-minded so they were going to battle right to the very end,” said Christie, whose daughter Sarah is a team manager. “But was I nervous? Yeah, absolutely.”
Thomas Walkup, the hero of Stephen F. Austin’s first-round upset of West Virginia, scored 21 points in his last college game.
“It’s something I’ve been afraid of for a while,” Walkup said of his SFA career coming to a close. “It hurts.”
After it was over, Walkup had his arm around senior point guard Trey Pinkney, friends since their days playing AAU in Houston, as they walked back to the locker room.
“I told him I loved him and hugged him for a couple minutes,” Walkup said. “He’ll be my best friend for life, but we’ll never get to do this together. That’s what hurts the most.”
The loss snapped a 21-game winning streak for Stephen F. Austin that was the longest in the country. No mid-major has been as dominant in its conference lately as the Southland Conference champions. This is the Lumberjacks’ third straight NCAA appearance and the second time they won a first-round game. Their goal all year was Sweet 16.
“They’ve set a new standard for SFA basketball,” coach Brad Underwood said of his seniors.
Jackson had 18 points, helping the Irish erase a five-point lead in the last two minutes with a driving layup and two free throws. Auguste had 16 points and 15 boards, but it was the freshman from California who made the biggest play.
“We took punches and kept fighting and Rex made a great play at the end,” Jackson said. “Like coach says (Pflueger) plays volleyball in the summertime. So this counts as volleyball on the backboards.”
Walkup picked up his third foul with 17:53 left in the second half. He stayed in and dropped in a jumper a few moments later, but Underwood had to sit his star for a chunk of the second half. The Lumberjacks showed they could pick up for the two-time conference player of the year, getting offense from T.J. Holyfield (15 points) and Demetrious Floyd (16).
When Floyd made a 3 in transition with 3:31 left, it gave SFA a 73-70 lead. SFA forced turnovers on Notre Dame’s next two possessions – the Lumberjacks lead the nation in taking it away – and Walkup made two from the line to up the lead to five. It was the last points of the tournament for Stephen F. Austin.