|Michael Blaszczyk and Luke Johnson keep it light during Benedictine's second-round win vs. Hardin-Simmons.
Photos by Matthew McClure, d3photography.com
|Luke Johnson scored 20 points vs. Hardin-Simmons, as Benedictine came out of its first-round bye with a bang.|
By Josh Smith
The weight of carrying an undefeated record into the final weekend of the season can be difficult for some basketball teams to bear.
But the Benedictine men’s basketball team doesn’t mind talking about being 30-0. The way the Eagles see it, why should they? They are excited to make their first Final Four appearance and represent the NACC as the conference’s first national semifinalist.
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“We’ve probably done so many things to jinx ourselves this year,” Benedictine coach Keith Bunkenburg said, adding he thinks it’s important to talk about what his program is experiencing. “Talk about going and winning a national title. Talk about going to a Final Four. Let’s talk about winning a lot of games. I don’t think we’d ever predicted we’d be 30-0, but I think this group is confident enough to know we’re pretty good.
“So we talk about those things. Why not?”
Benedictine is the first undefeated team to reach the Division III Final Four since Connecticut College in 1999. In 1998, UW-Platteville won the national title with a perfect record.
According to junior guard Michael Blaszczyk, the Eagles have kept their focus on the next game all season, which has helped the team stay humble and hungry.
“I don’t think the record really affects us,” Blaszczyk said. “It is exciting that we’re 30-0, but we’re just enjoying being in the situation that we are and focusing on this weekend.”
Although the team is willing to address its flawless record, Bunkenburg noted that the players and coaches don’t bring up it very often.
“A lot of that stuff comes up with other people – family or friends or students or other coaches,” Bunkenburg said. “And if it does, we’ll talk about it. It’s not something we’re really focused on or worried about.”
As Benedictine won more games, collected a NACC title and a conference tournament championship, the excitement around the program has grown. That energy has increased as the Eagles advanced through the NCAA tournament as well.
“There’s definitely been a buzz on campus – even walking to class,” Blaszczyk said. “It’s pretty awesome to have people come up to you and just wish you good luck and congratulations. It’s an awesome feeling.”
The enthusiasm for Benedictine basketball has not caused the players to lose focus of their season-long goals, however.
Bunkenburg credited his team for preparing well and continuing to play consistently.
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“I don’t think we take anything for granted. We work hard in practice. We work hard to prepare. We know that every game is going to be a really tough game,” Bunkenburg said. “This group has been phenomenal in terms of being ready to play, no matter who, where or what we’re doing.”
The coach has seen improvement in handling the ball and noted that his players’ chemistry has continued to develop throughout the season.
The Eagles’ on-court chemistry has been on display recently. In three NCAA Tournament games, Benedictine has scored an average of 91.67 points per game and has won by an average margin of 18 points.
“We’re moving the ball well. We’re a really unselfish team, and we don’t really care who scores on any given night,” said Blaszczyk, who made six of the team’s 17 3-pointers in Saturday’s 93-73 win over Alma. “As long as we win, we’re happy. So if we don’t have a good shot, we’ll pass it – make the extra pass and turn a good shot into a great shot.”
Blaszczyk said the team’s selfless style came naturally. He and his teammates realized – even as early as this summer during open gyms and workouts – that anyone on the court could take over a game and carry the team to a victory.
“We have a good presence inside and we have a good presence on the outside,” Bunkenburg added. “So teams, sometimes, have to make a decision on how they’re going to defend us.”
Following three home games to kick off NCAA play, Benedictine will travel to Salem, Va., in search of its first national championship.
While the Eagles make their debut in the national semifinals, they will be facing an Amherst program making its seventh Final Four appearance.
“They’re very solid throughout their lineup. We’re going to have our hands full,” Bunkenburg said. “They’ve been there before, we haven’t. I think that’s always a little bit of an advantage. They know what to expect, we don’t. But we’re sure going to give it our best shot though.”
Bunkenburg said he expects his team to be prepared and ready to play. He said the team’s experience playing on the road in front of large, loud crowds should help this weekend.
“This team has been very good at staying in the moment and not getting outside themselves – and not trying to do too much because of the size of the game,” Bunkenburg said. “We’ve been very consistent in doing that, and I wouldn’t expect anything less this weekend.”