Believe it. Unbeaten Eagles dazzle, dominate, dance all the way to Final Four

March 14, 2016

Thirty-and-oh and two more to go.

The Benedictine Eagles rocked the Rice Center last weekend, whipping Ohio Wesleyan 97-84 on Friday and crushing Alma (Mich.) College 93-73 on Saturday to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball Championships this weekend in Salem, Va.

The Eagles (30-0) will face Amherst College (26-5) in the first of two national semifinals Friday at 4:00 p.m. (CST) at the Salem Civic Center. It is the Eagles' first trip to the Final Four and the furthest they have advanced since 1991, when current head coach Keith Bunkenburg was an assistant to Hall of Famer Tony LaScala.

"This is a different team (than the 1991 squad)," Bunkenburg said. "We were playing basically six against 12 when we lost in the quarterfinals to (eventual national champion University of) Wisconsin-Platteville. We were down by only 4 points at halftime, but we ran out of gas in the second half.

"At the beginning of this year, I thought we might be pretty good," the coach added. "But would I have predicted that we'd be 30-0?"

Benedictine's 6-foot-9 center Luke Johnson would have. He did, in fact, even though there were some early nonbelievers.

"Some of us believed we could do it at the beginning of the season … actually … surprisingly," he said. "It's a credit to our team. We did the work. We're unselfish and we all believe in each other so much. It's not about who scores or how we score – it's about that WE score."

Johnson will get no argument from Jim O'Boye. O'Boye was a shooting guard on that 1991 team who attended Saturday's game with his father, Jim O'Boye Sr., widely recognized in Chicago-area basketball circles as the organizer of the premier high school girls' basketball shootout in Illinois.

"The players have changed," the younger O'Boye said. "They're bigger, stronger, faster. They're better than we were back in 1991. It's a completely different game at the Division III level than it was back then. We were very, very good, but this team would beat us.

"I'm so happy for 'Bunks' (head coach Bunkenburg)," O'Boye added. "Twenty-five years later, he gets a chance to do it again and he gets it done. I'm proud of the kids, proud of the school and happy for Bunks."

Benet coach Gene Heidkamp also attended Saturday's game, and if anyone can appreciate Benedictine's unselfish style of play, it would be the man who has led the Redwings to a 28-3 record and a berth in Tuesday's Class 4A supersectional at Northern Illinois University without a single Division I recruit.

"What a fantastic story for Benedictine to go undefeated," Heidkamp said. "They're playing so well. It's really fun basketball to watch. They're unselfish. They have great guards. They have great big guys and they're so well coached. They've added a lot of excitement out here in the western suburbs."

Nowhere was that excitement more evident than inside the Rice Center, where nearly 2,000 people packed the stands Friday and Saturday to witness Benedictine's pursuit of history.

"This is awesome, especially since I know a lot of them because I have been in school with them," said cheerleader Allison Korn, a senior from Huntley. "It's been awesome watching them grow. Hopefully, this success will continue next year and in the future and the fans will keep coming."

Matt Lawless, a freshman from Aurora, got a front-row seat to Benedictine's rise to the top of the Division III national polls this season as a member of the University's pep band.

"It's been pretty awesome to go to every game and see them get better and better over the course of the season," he said.

Even many faculty and staff donned their Benedictine wear and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with students and parents to show their support for the only undefeated team in the nation at any level of NCAA men's basketball.

"Our young men are so tremendous and so humble, and we're very, very proud of them," said Rev. Linda Owens, associate dean for Student Development, after Saturday's sectional title game. "We're heading to Salem!"

Playing for their fans is what has made the Eagles so good, Johnson said.

"We play for them," said the Wheaton Academy graduate from Naperville. "We're just here to do the best we can. They come out and support us because they like what we do. That energy that they bring is everything to us. Without the fans, I don't think we'd be nearly as good as we are."

The energy was evident Saturday. The Eagles trailed only once, at 3-2, before unleashing a barrage of 3-pointers that led to a 26-9 advantage with a little more than 8 minutes remaining in the first half. Benedictine made 8 of its first 12 shots from behind the arc and led 44-25 at halftime.

The Eagles extended the lead to as many as 28 points in the second half. Nine players scored, led by 6-foot-3 junior Michael Blaszczyk from Naperville, who finished with 20 points on 6-of-7 shooting from behind the 3-point line.

Johnson added 15 points and 14 rebounds and sophomore Brayden Olson, who hails from Michigan, came off the bench to bury 4-of-5 3-point attempts.

"I just got hot," Blaszczyk said. "My confidence went through the roof. My teammates kept finding me open corners and on the wing, and I kept knocking them in. It was one of those nights."

The junior could not contain his emotions after burying his final 3-pointer of the game. The realization of what he and his teammates had achieved was overwhelming.

"(That final shot) wasn't like a dagger," he said. "We had a pretty comfortable lead. It was all the emotion pouring out of me knowing that we were going to the Final Four."

Benedictine is looking to become the first undefeated national champion in Division III since Wisconsin-Platteville went 30-0 in 1998 under former Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan.

"Going to the Final Four is pretty special," Bunkenburg said. "We're prepared to win two more games. That's our goal. We've said all year that the next game is our biggest game of the year, and our next game is our biggest game of the year."

The Eagles have even made a believer of their coach.

"I'm one of those guys – I'm a pessimist," Bunkenburg said. "I'm Lou Holtz. At the beginning of the year, I said, 'Uh, we're going to be OK.' Then halfway through the year I told my wife Karen, 'We have a shot. We have a shot with this group.'

"This group has the talent and they have the unselfishness," Bunkenburg added. "That's why they're good. We're looking forward to this weekend."

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Benedictine University is located in Lisle, Illinois just 25 miles west of Chicago, and has branch campuses in Springfield, Illinois and Mesa, Arizona. Founded as a Catholic university in 1887, Benedictine enrolls nearly 10,000 students in 56 undergraduate and 19 graduate programs. Forbes magazine named Benedictine among "America's Top Colleges" for the fifth consecutive year in 2015. Benedictine University's Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) program is listed by Crain's Chicago Business as the fifth largest in the Chicago area in 2015.


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