NCAA Talk

Late tip-in gives Notre Dame 76-75 win over Stephen F. Austin

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Late tip-in gives Notre Dame 76-75 win over Stephen F. Austin

NEW YORK (AP) — 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 either Wisconsin or Xavier 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 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.

Loyola, Valpo showdown in a big game early in the MVC schedule

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USA TODAY

Loyola, Valpo showdown in a big game early in the MVC schedule

Loyola battles Valparaiso in a Missouri Valley Conference clash that airs on NBC Sports Chicago Tuesday night at 7 p.m.

The Ramblers (10-7, 3-1) are fighting for the top spot in the Valley with the Crusaders (11-6, 4-0) as the top two teams in the conference play an important early league game.

Coming off of an important home win over Illinois State on Saturday, the Ramblers are hoping to make another move by taking a crack at the Valley's only unbeaten team. Veterans Marques Townes, Clayton Custer and Cameron Krutwig are all having strong seasons for Loyola as the Ramblers attempt to position themselves for another potential NCAA tournament bid.

Valparaiso has put together a strong five-game winning streak, including a good road win at Southern Illinois over the weekend. The Crusaders have a balanced group of scorers, led by forward Ryan Fazekas, and center Derrik Smits -- the son of former Indiana Pacers center Rik Smits.

These two teams will also play on Feb. 10 as the Ramblers will make a trip to Valpo for the rematch. For now, this matchup could provide an indication of the team to beat in the Valley.

Northwestern mounts huge comeback, beats Utah in Holiday Bowl; Thorson, Fitzgerald heading to NFL next?

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USA TODAY

Northwestern mounts huge comeback, beats Utah in Holiday Bowl; Thorson, Fitzgerald heading to NFL next?

It was a tale of two halves for Northwestern in Monday's Holiday Bowl.

After entering halftime trailing Utah 20-3, Northwestern mounted a huge second half comeback to knock off the Utes 31-20. Northwestern, which outscored Utah 28-0 in the third quarter, finishes the 2018 season 9-5 record.

Northwestern was just 3-of-14 on third down, though they forced six Utah turnovers (two interceptions) highlighted by an 82-yard fumble return for a touchdown by safety/linebacker Jared McGee.

Six turnovers forced is the most by Northwestern since Oct. 3, 2009 against Purdue, when the Wildcats also forced six turnovers.

Senior quarterback Clayton Thorson — who tore his right ACL on Dec. 29, 2017 in the Music City Bowl — finished 21-of-30 for 241 yards and two touchdowns. However, Thorson exited the game late in the fourth quarter after going down awkwardly near Utah's sideline.

Thorson is one of the top quarterback prospects for the 2019 NFL Draft. 

The win improves Northwestern's all-time bowl game record to 5-10. However, they have now three-straight bowl games; from the 1948-2012 seasons, they won two bowl games — the 1949 Rose Bowl and the 2013 Gator Bowl.

One of the biggest questions facing Northwestern is the future of head coach Pat Fitzgerald. According to a report, the Green Bay Packers are expected to request an interview with Fitzgerald for their head coaching vacancy.

Unlike Thorson, Fitzgerald leaving for the NFL is no guarantee. If he does leave, however, Fitzgerald would leave with the most all-time regular season wins (95) and bowl wins (4) in Northwestern history.

Fitzgerald's .576 winning percentage would also be best all-time by a Northwestern head coach, minimum five seasons. 

Fans likely will anxiously wait for news regarding Fitzgerald's future. Overall, though, fans should be appreciative of the job he has done into turning Northwestern into one of the better football programs in the Big Ten.

UPDATE: Here's what Fitzgerald said about his future after the game.