The Benedictine Eagles extended their win streak to 31 games last Friday by beating Amherst (Mass.) College and advanced to the NCAA Division III Men's Basketball National Championship game Saturday in Salem, Va.
However, the University of St. Thomas (Minn.) outscored Benedictine 27-6 from the free-throw line to defeat the Eagles 82-76 in the title game.
The Eagles ended their record-breaking season at 31-1.
"It was tough," said D3Hoops.com National Player of the Year Lucas Johnson, who led Benedictine with 21 points and 11 rebounds in the championship game. "It's always tough when your season ends like that. I felt like we did everything we could and gave it our best effort. It was a great run."
What the Eagles achieved in 2015-16 was something no other Benedictine team had done before them.
The groundwork was laid last season and during the spring and summer through hard work, dedication and the relentless pursuit of perfection.
"We did everything we could do to get better," Johnson said.
The Eagles finished the 2015-16 regular season 27-0, eclipsing the record for most wins in a season (23) set by the 1990-91 team that had reached the NCAA tournament quarterfinals before losing to eventual champion University of Wisconsin-Platteville.
Benedictine's unblemished regular season featured five wins against teams from the perennially strong College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, including victories over nationally-ranked Elmhurst College (94-86) and North Central College (75-73).
Benedictine won the Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference tournament by defeating Milwaukee School of Engineering 83-57 to earn the league's automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. It marked the first time the Eagles qualified for the NCAA tournament since 2011.
The Eagles were awarded a first-round bye in the 62-team NCAA bracket and defeated Hardin-Simmons University 85-64 in the second round on March 5. Junior Michael Blaszczyk of Naperville Central led the way with 29 points and Johnson, a Wheaton Academy graduate, added a double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Benedictine advanced to the Final Four by whipping Ohio Wesleyan 97-84 and crushing Alma (Mich.) College 93-73 on March 11-12 at the Rice Center. The Eagles trailed only once against Alma, at 3-2, before unleashing a barrage of 3-pointers that led to an early 26-9 advantage.
Benedictine made 8 of its first 12 shots from behind the arc and led Alma 44-25 at halftime. The Eagles extended the lead to as many as 29 points in the second half behind an amazing shooting display from 3-point distance (17 of 24, 70 percent) behind Blaszczyk (6 of 7) and sophomore Brayden Olson (4 of 5) of Grand Rapids, Mich.
On Friday, the Eagles reached the NCAA championship game by holding off Amherst 63-60 in the tournament semifinals at the Salem Civic Center. Four players scored in double figures for Benedictine, including juniors Tahron Harvey
and Adam Reynolds.
But the dream of an undefeated national championship ended 24 hours later.
"When we came in as freshmen we won something like eight games," said senior Tim Reamer of Chicago, recipient of The Elite 90 award presented to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade-point average participating at the finals site for each of the NCAA's championships.
"Then as sophomores we won 12 games and last year we won 18," he added. "Winning 31 this year was incredible, but to come so close to going unbeaten and winning a national championship …"
Head coach Keith Bunkenburg, who was named D3Hoops.com National Coach of the Year, was effusive in his praise of the team and its achievements.
"This group has made history," Bunkenburg said. "I couldn't be more proud of this team, their effort and what they've done all year."
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, and the 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.