Sunday, March 20, 2016

Stephen F. Stunner: Lumberjacks fall to Notre Dame in final seconds

Rex Pflueger's tip-in with 1.5 seconds left ended Stephen F. Austin's Cinderella run, and sent Notre Dame to Sweet 16. (Photo courtesy of NBC Sports)

BROOKLYN -- The ball was tipped, and there Rex Pflueger was.

The freshman's putback with 1.5 seconds left in regulation was the shooting star that sent Notre Dame to the Sweet 16 for a second straight season, as the Fighting Irish (23-11) defeated Cinderella story Stephen F. Austin (28-6) in a 76-75 thriller at Barclays Center.

"Are you kidding me? Are you freaking kidding me?," head coach Mike Brey exclaimed as the sixth-seeded Irish stole a trip to the East Regional semifinals away from the crowd favorite Lumberjacks, who had shocked West Virginia on Friday and were poised to uncork an additional upset Sunday afternoon. "That was unbelievable. God, that was fun. I'm very proud of our group, because it didn't look good for us, but I think both nights here, we showed some great character to kind of believe we could finish it, and we did."

For the second straight game, Notre Dame shot the ball well, firing at a 57 percent clip from the floor two days removed from defeating Michigan in the first round on Friday. But in a nip-and-tuck affair where neither side led by more than seven points, the efficiency and marksmanship on the Irish bench was not enough to extricate them from a 75-70 hole with 2:05 remaining in regulation.

Their rebounding down the stretch, though; particularly on the offensive end, was.

Zach Auguste's carom of a missed three-pointer by V.J. Beachem, who finished with 15 points, led to a layup by Demetrius Jackson; who paced the Irish with 18, to bring them within three with 94 seconds on the clock. On the next possession, Auguste came down with the ball again after Thomas Walkup missed a three that would have put Stephen F. Austin ahead by six, and Jackson was eventually fouled. The projected NBA lottery pick sank both free throws, making it a one-point game with 47 ticks left in the second half. Walkup came up empty again, and after an offensive board and miss by the Lumberjacks, Auguste secured his third key rebound.

"It came down to what team could execute to win the game," said Auguste, who also scored 16 points, "and we stepped up and did that."

Indeed they did, with Auguste grabbing his fifteenth and final rebound off Jackson's missed go-ahead layup. But the senior forward's own attempt to lay it in did not fall either, leaving Pflueger to pick up the pieces.

"I didn't expect that, to be honest," said Pflueger of being the hero. "I just crashed the board. 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 the best for us."

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