It's not easy for a coach to tell his team to keep fighting despite a season that looks destined for calamity. After a 4-17 start the Benedictine men's basketball team had a mathematical chance at making the Northern Athletic Conference Tournament, but math seemed to be the only thing on the Eagles' side.
That is, until they pulled it off.
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"I said, 'Here is the scenario, guys, all we can do is worry about the next game,'" coach Keith Bunkenburg said. "This group, I will give them credit, they haven't given up. It's weird though, it feels like three different seasons. Obviously, we got here and that's all we really wanted."
It took every bit of the season for the Eagles to get back in the playoffs. In their final regular-season game Tuesday night they needed to beat Rockford and Concordia Chicago had to top Wisconsin Lutheran. If both games fell their way, Benedictine would finish in a three-way tie for the eighth place and the final playoff spot with the tiebreaker in hand.
After Wisconsin Lutheran lost by 16 points, Benedictine only needed to hang on to its lead for the dream comeback to come true. However, despite Bunkenburg purposely holding off on finding out the score to the other game, he said it looked like his team started to play scared, and it nearly cost them the game. With a late final push Benedictine sealed the 75-64 victory over Rockford. It wasn't until then that Bunkenburg heard the good news.
"Someone came up to me right after I shook Rockford's hands and told me Concordia beat Wisconsin Lutheran by 20," Bunkenburg said. "I couldn't believe it, the chances of us getting in were one in a million and it's unbelievable that our season continues."
While the season will go on, it heads straight into a 19-6 Aurora team that handled Benedictine in their two previous matchups this year, winning both games by at least 10 points. Bunkenburg will have some time to prepare, even after he celebrates the win with his team tonight. The game won't be played until Saturday at Aurora.
With the season coming to a finish, it seems only fitting that the two top teams will face off this weekend for a chance to win the CCIW women's basketball title and go in to the tournament as the top seed.
Saturday Wheaton College will host Carthage and with a win join Carthage atop the standings. Even with all that's at stake, coach Kent Madsen isn't feeling the heat.
"I wouldn't necessarily say there is a lot of pressure," Madsen said. "The pressure, I would say, is more on Carthage because they are the ones in first place. They are the ones who should get that homecourt advantage for the tournament if they take care of business. We should be playing as free and loose as we possibly can."
Although Madsen won't admit to feeling pressure, he did say there is a great deal of anticipation. Saturday will be the final home game of the season for Wheaton, so in addition to the conference being on the line it will be senior night.
On top of everything else, the Thunder must overcome the memory of a 68-36 loss to Carthage last month. The most important incentive to win, Madsen said, is to grab homecourt advantage for the CCIW Tournament.
"It would be huge to get that top seed just because, you know, it's been a while since anyone has hosted the tournament besides Wesleyan. It's been five years," Madsen said. "Everyone wants that homecourt advantage, especially with the qualifier for the national tournament on the line."