The Benedictine Men’s Basketball season ended in Salem, Virginia last weekend with a loss in the National Championship game, an 82-76 defeat against St. Thomas. The loss marked the team’s first of the season and ended a historic run by the team in which they won 31 straight games.
“Our team accomplished so much and I could not be prouder. They worked so hard together and had a goal to win a National Title and we came up one game short,” Head Coach Keith Bunkenburg said, “They have done what so many try to do and have failed. Even though we lost our last game, there are so many people who wish they could have been in our situation. Great experience that they will remember for a lifetime.”
In the first game of the weekend, the Eagles played Amherst College in a National Semifinal game. The first half was neck and neck with neither team giving up much ground. The Eagles scored first with a three pointer by senior forward Luke Johnson. However Amherst did not disappear, grabbing their largest advantage in the game with a 6-0 run to give them a 16-11 lead.
Junior guard Michael Blaszczyk hit a three pointer with just over two minutes left in the half to for Benedictine’s last lead in the half at 23-22. Amherst would go on a 5-0 run to end the half and go into the break ahead 29-25. This marked only the fourth time in the season that the Eagles trailed at the half.
Benedictine started the second half off fast with two layups by junior forward Adam Reynolds followed by a layup by Johnson to give Benedictine a 31-29 lead. Benedictine would take over the game from there converting six of its first nine shots as Amherst converted only one out of ten shots. A jump shot by junior guard Tahron Harvey gave Benedictine a 39-32 lead, which Benedictine would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
Amherst would come back to tie the game at 44 with 8:04 left in the game, but Benedictine would go on a 10-2 run to give them an advantage late in the game. With just six seconds left, Amherst would miss a three-point attempt for the lead. After Benedictine split free throws the following possession, Amherst would miss a three-point shot at the buzzer giving Benedictine a 63-60 victory and a berth in the National Championship game.
“The support that our peers and the school showed us in Salem was really special. Having them behind us the whole way definitely made a huge difference,” junior forward Shawn Soelter said, “The experience was awesome and something that I will be proud to look back on!”
In the Division III National Championship Game, the Eagles would play against St. Thomas University in the program’s first championship game appearance. The appearance also marked the first time that any NACC program made it to a Division III National Title game.
The Eagles struggled to start the game against St. Thomas, falling behind 4-0 early in the first half. After a three pointer by Harvey pulled the game within a point with 16:24 in the half; St. Thomas answered with a 6-0 run to take the lead 12-5.
St. Thomas took a strong hold of the first half, reaching double-digit leads twice in the half. A three pointer by Blaszczyk with 2:52 left in the half showed that the Eagles would not go down without a fight as they trailed 30-27. A strong final push by St. Thomas ended the half with the Eagles down 37-32, marking only the fifth time the Eagles trailed at the half during the season.
In the second half, early foul trouble slowed a comeback attempt by the Eagles early in the second half, but a three-point play by Harvey cut into the St. Thomas lead 56-51 with 11:15 left in the game. After St. Thomas extended the lead to 65-53, Benedictine started to make a strong comeback attempt.
With 6:21 left in the game, senior guard John Dodson made a pair of layups to jump-start a 12-4 run for the Eagles. With just 1:32 left to play in the game, Johnson made a thunderous dunk to bring Benedictine to within two points of St. Thomas, 73-71. That would be the closest the Eagles would get however as St. Thomas scored the final six points of the game and a national championship.
“It was a great run. We did our best and left it all out there,” Johnson said, “We all thank the continued support from all of our fans! The show out for the tournament was amazing.”
What the Eagles Men’s Basketball team did this year should not be overlooked. For Benedictine, Coach Bunkenburg was named NCAA Division III National Coach of the year by D3hoops.com, Johnson was selected as NCAA Division III National Player of the Year and they broke numerous school and NACC records on their way to the school’s first National Championship game in any sport.
Thank you to Coach Bunkenburg and the Men’s basketball team for a great ride. We are all excited to see what the team has in store for us next season.