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Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024
The Observer

Mooney, Pflueger reflect on what could have been with season cut short as Irish got hot

The last four years of Notre Dame men’s basketball have been marked by more changes, adversity and growth than most programs experience in a decade. Entering on the heels of back-to-back Elite Eight appearances for the first time since March Madness expanded to 64 teams, this senior class felt first-hand the heartbreak of injury, the excitement of victory and most recently the anticipation that their countless hours of work were paying off.

“I think we were playing our best basketball throughout or during the year, and to be able to play like that at the end, you know, you’re pumped, you’re ready to go,” senior forward John Mooney said of the team’s mentality down the stretch. 

While the season was eventually cut short due to the COVID-19 outbreak, a 22-point win over the Eagles in the first round of the ACC Championship kept the Irish hopes alive as they prepared to make a run in the postseason. But to fully understand the magnitude of that circumstance, it’s important to consider what this senior class endured throughout their four years at Notre Dame. 

With the program seemingly at its peak, head coach Mike Brey welcomed a trio of freshmen in 2016 — point guard T.J. Gibbs, stretch forward Nikola Djogo and Mooney, a power forward who would go on to dominate the rim, joining the likes of Luke Harangody and Jack Cooley in recent program history. Integrated into a veteran corps, Brey guided the team to yet another NCAA Tournament appearance, in which Notre Dame fell to West Virginia in the second round.

Irish senior guard T.J. Gibbs surveys the court during Notre Dame's 80-72 win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 5 at Purcell Pavilion.

Just nine months later, the Irish looked poised to earn themselves a seat at the table of basketball heavyweights as they won the Maui Invitational and moved up to No. 5 in the country with a last-second win over Wichita State. However, their momentum came to a halt as two of their starters battled injuries and the reality of the ACC set in. Following a second-round exit from the NIT, Brey and his veterans prepared for a rebuilding year, as they welcomed arguably the most highly-touted recruiting class in program history, headlined by four four-star commits.

While the team showed glimpses of its potential, they still struggled to find their identity as senior captain Rex Pflueger went down with an ACL injury right as the conference schedule was getting in full swing.

“It was five freshmen coming in,” Mooney said. “We lose Rex Pflueger to an ACL injury. Another guy transfers out, so you know, it’s tough when you have five new guys that are in there and you don’t have a lot of chemistry playing with with new guys. ... That’s not to say that these guys aren’t talented — because they really are — but when you’re playing the ACC, you have to have chemistry, and that takes time to build.”

Courtesy of Anthony Reo Photography
(left to right) Irish senior forwards Nikola Djogo and John Mooney, senior guard T.J. Gibbs and graduate student guard Rex Pflueger look on during Notre Dame's 64-62 overtime victory over Toledo on Nov. 21, 2019.

With essentially the whole team returning, this was their year. A strong 11-4 start gave Brey and his staff reason to believe this team could return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that second-round departure. Throughout that stretch, Notre Dame suffered a narrow loss to North Carolina on the road. However, the Irish demonstrated their resolve two weeks later when they faced their next major test — Toledo — besting the Rockets 64-62 courtesy of a 3-pointer at the buzzer by sophomore Nate Laszewski to force overtime. For Pflueger, this game signaled a change in the expectations for the Irish.

“Having to battle back and see the will that our team had was really special, because I didn’t think we had that last year,” he said. “To do it like that and to be able to have all the right things happen at the right time and have a little bit of luck as well and come out with the victory was definitely one of the most compelling victories in my career.”

Similarly, Laszewski’s late-game heroics were just one of many other signs that a new sense of confidence had come over this team, led by the emergence of their sophomore unit.

“It was great to see them develop. They have so much talent,” Pflueger said. “They are hard workers. They know just how important they are to the team, so to see them go after the game every single time playing with the confidence that they did is a true testament to the program and how we have built a culture that is inclusive and wants to help everyone get better.”

Irish graduate student guard Rex Pflueger looks to feed the ball inside during Notre Dame's 80-72 win over Pittsburgh on Feb. 5 at Purcell Pavilion.

Dropping four of five conference matchups certainly made the Irish faithful nervous, but this team proved it had grown from the past two seasons, bouncing back with four straight wins and an eventual sixth-place finish in the ACC. The team even earned revenge on perennial powerhouse North Carolina, who bested them early in the season, beating the Tar Heels 77-76 behind yet another buzzer-beater beyond the arc by Laszewski.

“Both games had a big shot from Nate Laszewski coming in clutch for us. Once you see that ball go in the air and you have confidence in your teammates, knowing that it’s going to go in,” Pflueger said. “I think that shows something special about our team, showing trust for one another.”

While the season’s untimely ending brought this comeback story to a close, the graduating class feels confident they’ve made the most of their time representing the Irish.

“Just because the tournament ended, I don’t see our season as a failure. I saw us giving our best shot every game, whether it was in close losses or wins,” Pflueger said. “And it was just one of those seasons where obviously it being the last season … it was going to be special no matter what. Even though there wasn’t really a final conclusion on the season, I can say confidently that we are proud of what we did. Even though we wished we could have finished it out, we are going to take the memories and lessons we learned from this season into the rest of our lives.”

Mooney reiterated that sentiment, commenting on the bright future ahead for the young corps as they prepare to take on more leadership themselves.

“I think we’ve made tremendous strides over the past two years in particular. We got better and better each day,” Mooney said. “And it showed in our record. … I think the program is in great hands.”