National championship eludes Benedictine
SALEM, Va. -- Perfection was just out of reach, figuratively and literally.
The University of St. Thomas (Minn.) stopped Benedictine University one step short of a perfect season, defeating the Eagles in the Division III men's basketball national championship game 82-76.
It was the only loss of the season for the Eagles, who finished 30-1.
When the Eagles needed to get the ball, it was out of reach. When a rebound was needed most, the ball went another way.
Benedictine trailed by 4 points with 1:36 to play when Naperville Central High School graduate Mike Blaszczyk grabbed a loose ball, raced upcourt and sent a perfect bounce pass to Luke Johnson (Wheaton Academy), who dunked the ball.
A timeout gave the Benedictine faithful who made the trip from Lisle a chance to revel in the momentum, hoping the St. Thomas lead would evaporate.
That didn't happen. Tournament MVP Taylor Montero sliced through the lane for a layup.
Blaszczyk's 3-point attempt on the next possession bounced hard off the rim and just out of reach of two Eagles, where it was gathered by Montero.
Benedictine was forced to foul, and the Tommies scored four straight points on six free-throw attempts. The Eagles last best chance was lost.
Cutting the lead to 2 came thanks to a 12-4 run over a four-minute span.
"For us to go on that run at the end, cut it to 2 and have an opportunity to get a stop and maybe take the lead is who this team is," said Benedictine coach Keith Bunkenburg.
The last five rebounds of the game were grabbed by the Tommies, giving them a 36-32 edge in boards for the game. The margin is significant because it was one of the keys to the game for UST coach John Tauer.
"I told the guys before the game that the key is rebounding. I said I guarantee if we win the rebounding battle we will win the game," Tauer said.
Benedictine led the country in rebounding margin, averaging 14.7 more per game than opponents. That edge disappeared against St. Thomas (30-3).
"We haven't been outrebounded in a long time," Bunkenburg said.
Johnson grabbed 11 boards to go with 21 points, his second double-double of the Final Four.
Normally, the Eagles guards are active in gathering long rebounds, but the Tommies took few distance shots that lead to long rebounds.
Tauer said the Benedictine defense clamped down on the arc, leading the Tommies to pass on 3-point attempts. St. Thomas only made 1 of 7 attempts, shooting but one in the second half. Instead, the Tommies went inside.
Montero and Ryan Saarela combined for 53 points and 21 rebounds, 42 of those points in the paint. While the iron was unkind to Johnson on occasion, the Tommies had better luck in the low post, shooting 19 for 25.
Benedictine never led, climbing out of a hole created when the Tommies shot 60 percent from the field in the first six minutes and built a 9-point lead at the under-12 media timeout.
Guard John Dodson said nerves were not a factor.
"The jitters were taken care of yesterday," Dodson said. "They just came out with a hot start and we came out struggling. It took us a while to get going, but I felt like we were ready from the get-go."
Johnson, Dodson and Tim Reamer, the three seniors on the Eagles team, were the only three players to score in double figures. Dodson had 13 and Reamer had 11, providing a spark off the bench.
"He's an energy guy; he's a physical player," Bunkenburg said. "He's an undersized post. For his size he gets every ounce of his body into what he does."
St. Thomas won its second national title and made the trip to Salem for the seventh time. Bunkenburg hopes Benedictine can become a program with that much of a winning tradition.
"This group has made history," Bunkenburg said. "The core group of guys want this experience again. But it's hard to get here, we know that. We're going to try. I just thank our players, our students and our administrators, everybody who came out and supported us."