Benedictine to play for national championship

  • Benedictine senior Luke Johnson shoots over Amherst's Eric Conklin in Benedictine's 63-60 national semifinal win.

    Benedictine senior Luke Johnson shoots over Amherst's Eric Conklin in Benedictine's 63-60 national semifinal win. Courtesy of Keith Lucas

 
By Christian Moody
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 3/18/2016 10:01 PM

SALEM, Va. -- That long staircase to the perfect season has only one more step in front of the Benedictine University Eagles.

By virtue of a hard-fought 63-60 win over Amherst College, the Eagles will play for the first national championship in men's basketball program history, facing St. Thomas (Minn.) at 5:05 p.m. Saturday in the Salem Civic Center. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network.

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Benedictine (31-0) never got its prolific offense rolling, but the defense saved the day. Coach Keith Bunkenburg described the defensive effort as "phenomenal."

"Defensively, it was our best game of the year. By far," Bunkenburg said. "On a night when we struggled a little on the offensive end and didn't knock down some of our shots, we turned it over, but our defense had to be consistent."

The perimeter defense hounded Amherst's shooters on the 3-point line, holding the Purple and White to 35 percent shooting. When Amherst missed, the Eagles found the ball. The Lisle school won the rebounding battle 50-30, allowing only five offensive rebounds for Amherst.

"Rebounding is something we stress every day," Bunkenburg said. "We have the biggest rebounding margin in the country. That's been a staple of ours. tonight is no different. Our guards do a really good job rebounding. Everybody goes to the glass and has a really strong nose for the ball."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Benedictine averages 14.7 more rebounds a game than its opponents. No rebound was bigger than Mike Blaszczyk's grab of a carom with five seconds remaining.

Trailing by 2, Amherst's Conner Green opted for a 3-pointer that hit the right side of the rim and bounced left, where Blaszczyk, a Naperville Central High School graduate, was waiting. He was fouled and made a free throw for a 3-point lead. Green had one more shot to tie at the buzzer, but the ball didn't find the net.

The ball seemed afraid of the net most of the night. Both teams shot 31 percent in the first half.

"We had a few little jitters to start the game," Blaszczyk said. "Once we had the first timeout, it was just basketball. We slowed down and made sure we got into our offense."

Amherst led by 4 at the half, but Benedictine opened the second half by pushing the ball inside to Adam Reynolds. Reynolds took the ball into the lane for a pair of turnaround jumpers.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"In the first half I only took two shot attempts," Reynolds said. "I had Luke (Johnson) tell me, 'Be aggressive. Those are good shots. Take those.' It built confidence for my teammates to say I make good decisions with the ball and to take advantage of those."

Amherst coach David Hixon said he expected the Eagles offense to go through Reynolds and Luke Johnson, who played at Wheaton Academy.

The Eagles hit 6 of their first 7 shots of the half while Amherst made only 1 of 9.

When Glenbard East graduate Tahron Harvey stopped and popped for an 8-foot jumper from the left baseline, the Eagles were up 8 points and threatening to blow open a tight game.

Amherst (26-6), however, turned the second half into a series of runs by each team. After fighting back for a tie, Benedictine then went back up by 8. Amherst then cut the lead to 1, but the Eagles never trailed.

Johnson recorded a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Blaszczyk led the Eagles with 15 points. Harvey had 13 and Reynolds finished with 12.

In stopping Amherst, Benedictine knocked off a team with two national titles and seven trips to the Division III Final Four. This is the third time in five years St. Thomas is in Salem. The Tommies won the 2011 national title.

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