ND players savor their unexpected trip to state

Saturday, March 12, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Win, lose or draw, Notre Dame's boys basketball came up to the Class 4 state final four with the notion of going out and having some fun.

Despite an 84-72 loss to O'Hara in the semifinals Friday at Mizzou Arena, there were plenty of smiles from the Bulldogs faithful. After a 6-20 record last season and a 9-16 regular season, the Bulldogs have little to complain about.

"I'm not going to say we're awesome; we're lucky to be here," Notre Dame coach Paul Hale said. "But I'd rather be lucky than good any day."

Although few in attendance likely gave the Bulldogs much of a chance at winning their semifinal game, Notre Dame proved to be resilient against the state's second-ranked Class 4 squad. Notre Dame (14-16) led throughout the first quarter, and at one point trailed by only two in the fourth quarter.

"We've come a long way as the season's gone by," Hale said. "It was anyone's ballgame in the fourth quarter."

Of course, few Bulldogs players are enjoying themselves as much as senior Bryce Willen. After missing nearly the entire season recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, Willen's comeback has been nothing short of remarkable. Over the last six games, Willen has averaged about 20 points a game and shown his old form.

"Everything, as coach says, is all gravy," Willen said. "We've put in our hard work. It's a blessing to be here. It's something you dream about."

After losing Willen to the injury in the final game of the boys soccer season, Hale had his doubts about the season.

"I never would have imagined," said Hale, who is in his first year at Notre Dame. "When I took the job and watched us practice a bit, I was concerned about winning a game."

For some of the younger players, making it to Mizzou Arena should simply whet their appetites. Notre Dame starts two juniors -- forward Alex Ressel and point guard Frankie Ellis -- and has plenty of reserves coming back for next year.

"It's unbelievable," Ressel said. "It's really going to drive me this offseason to work harder."

The Bulldogs still have a game to play, with Westminster Christian Academy (25-6) awaiting the Bulldogs today in the third-place game. And while a loss would not diminish the excitement generated by the Bulldogs' final four run, the team hopes to come home victorious.

"We're going to try to win," Hale said. "Our goal is to win one game."

Ressel said seeing how they stacked up against O'Hara should fuel Notre Dame to come out strong against Westminster.

"O'Hara's a great team, and we hung with them," Ressel said. "We proved we can hang with them, which gives us a lot of confidence going into today's game."

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