Surprising ND plays in semis against O'Hara

Friday, March 11, 2005

Paul Hale, Notre Dame's first-year boys basketball coach, willingly admits he did not expect his team to be in this situation when he took over the program last year.

The Bulldogs, who won six games in 2003-04, are two wins away from the program's third state title. With five straight wins, the Bulldogs have made their way to Mizzou Arena in Columbia, Mo., where they will face O'Hara at 9 a.m. today in the Class 4 state semifinals.

"We're just on gravy right now," Hale said. "We've overachieved. We know that. They've exceeded my expectations of this team in both heart and getting it done."

Notre Dame is the surprise of Class 4 basketball, the only team to win a district while sporting a losing record. The Bulldogs (14-16) then knocked off seventh-ranked Festus 78-51 in the sectionals and fifth-ranked Salem 60-50 in the quarterfinals.

The Bulldogs' five straight wins followed a six-game losing streak which left Notre Dame at 9-16 at the end of the regular season. Notre Dame's 16 losses is four more than the other three final four teams combined.

"We're just fortunate," Hale said. "I'm not going to tell you we're the best team up there, or the best team we've faced, but we were the best team that night. The best team doesn't always win."

While Hale did not expect his team to be in the state final four, his district expectations changed with the return of 6-foot-5 senior forward Bryce Willen. Notre Dame struggled to win without Willen, who missed nearly all of the regular season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. But with a healthy Willen averaging 18.4 points over the five-game winning streak, Notre Dame is starting to show its true colors.

"Going into district, I'm not going to lie, we didn't have a lot of hope," Notre Dame senior forward Jeremy Brinkmeyer said. "But with Bryce coming back, we have more options."

With Willen's added scoring and Hale's trademark 2-3 matchup zone, the Bulldogs are playing with a lot of confidence heading into today's semifinal.

Notre Dame will have its hands full with an O'Hara team ranked second in Class 4. O'Hara is led by Marcus Walker, a 6-foot-1 senior averaging 30 points a game. Walker has already signed with Nebraska.

"I think we have a good a chance as any of the four teams up there," Notre Dame junior Kirk Boeller said. "We're all 0-0 going up there."

Added Brinkmeyer: "We're not going to have a big head. We're going to remember our 6-20 season last year and let it fuel us to play harder than any team up there."

In the other semifinal, Willard (28-2), the top ranked team in Class 4, will face Westminster Christian (25-5) at 10:35 a.m. Willard enters the semifinals with a 27-game winning streak. The championship game is set for 12:10 p.m. Saturday, with the third-place game at 9 a.m. Saturday.

Notre Dame is the only one of the four remaining squads with a state championship, while O'Hara and Westminster are making their first trips to the final four.

For Hale, who is making his second final four appearance in a 27-year coaching career and reached the 500-win mark in the quarterfinal, a final four appearance is something to enjoy -- win or lose.

"It's hard to get up there. You have to get some breaks, get some luck on your side," Hale said. "I've had better teams, but not one who plays with more heart."

If history holds true, Notre Dame should have a good shot to come home with a win. In five previous trips to the final four, the Bulldogs have finished first twice and third three times.

Notre Dame's boys have waited a long time for a return trip to Columbia. The Bulldogs' last trip to the state final four was in 1987, the second of back-to-back state championships. Since that time, Notre Dame's girls program has made the final four five times, including three straight trips from 2001 to 2003.

"We always go up there to watch them," Notre Dame senior John Eric Klein said. "Now it's time for them to watch us."

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