Its impact has been felt at the most crucial times this season, and Notre Dame likely would not be off to its best start in league play in program history without consistent contributions from the reserves.
The Fighting Irish bench players, headlined by sophomore guard Rex Pflueger, freshman guard T.J. Gibbs and senior forward Austin Torres, don’t provide instant offense when they enter the game.
Notre Dame’s top four bench players — Gibbs, Pflueger, Torres, as well as sophomore wing Matt Ryan — are averaging a combined 17.1 points per game this season. Their presence is felt more on the defensive end, as well as producing an occasional spark on offense.
“We have this fire about us this year,” Pflueger said. “Obviously we’re finishing these close games right now and a large part is the bench coming in and giving us that extra energy. It’s up to the starters to really get us in those positions and finish it for us.”
In Saturday’s 76-71 win over Virginia Tech, which moved the Irish to 16-2 overall and 5-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Gibbs made his primetime debut. The 6-3, 200-pounder scored a career-high 13 points in 17 minutes of action, hitting 5 of 7 shots and making both free throws.
Pflueger, a 6-6 swingman known for his defense, scored seven points and made two of his four three-point attempts in the win.
And against Miami last Thursday, Torres — averaging just 7.8 minutes a game — scored eight points in eight minutes in the 67-62 win.
“We knew we had a really good team, and we knew we had a really deep team,” senior wing V.J. Beachem said. “We can play eight, nine guys and everybody is ready to go. That’s a huge strength of ours, especially the other night when we were coming off only having one day off.”
Against the Hokies, the bench played a major role in the success, as the combination of Gibbs, Pflueger and Torres went 9 of 14 from the floor.
Head coach Mike Brey said he had an idea before the season this would be how his rotation worked out, though he’s still looking for Ryan — perhaps the best pure shooter on the team — to get more minutes.
“Our bench has been awesome,” senior guard Steve Vasturia said. “You bring those three guys in [Gibbs, Pflueger and Torres], especially in the first half right away, maybe when some guys on our team and the other team are tired, and they bring a spark on both ends of the floor.
“All three of them at the beginning of the year were probably known for their defense, but they’re all scoring and making an impact on offense. We’re confident when they come in, nothing’s going to change.”
Gibbs, perhaps more than any player in the rotation, has played at an unexpectedly high level. Playing anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes a game, the Scotch Plains, N.J., native has complemented the play of starting point guard Matt Farrell.
Said Brey of Gibbs, the brother of former college guards Ashton (Pittsburgh) and Sterling (Texas, Seton Hall and UConn): “He’s just mature beyond his years.”
“There must be something about having to fight his way through two older brothers,” Brey said. “He has got a great toughness about him and he believes. And he’s playing with some older guys that help him believe. He’s now been around an older group and has watched them and learned their vibe, and that’s helped him.”