CHAMPAIGN – Gene Heidkamp broke down in tears in the middle of his press conference Friday. It’s a sight not typically associated with a winning coach.
That’s how much Brady Kunka means to the Benet coach. And how much this game surely meant to Kunka, a senior guard and Benet’s leading scorer.
Kunka went down with a badly sprained ankle early in Friday’s Class 4A state semifinal. He did not return. Kunka came out of halftime on crutches.
“Brady played his whole career for an opportunity like this. To have that happen on the first play is heartbreaking,” Heidkamp said. “But the guys really rallied. Seeing him go down, I think, provided them with extra motivation.”
The Redwings indeed rose to the occasion without their fallen leader.
Sam Driscoll came off the bench in Kunka’s absence to hit three first-half 3-pointers. Driscoll was one of four Benet players to score in double figures in a 64-49 win over New Trier in Friday’s first Class 4A semifinal at State Farm Center.
Brayden Fagbemi had 18 points, five assists and five rebounds; Niko Abusara 18 points, nine rebounds and eight steals; Parker Sulaver 12 points, and Driscoll 11 points for Benet (35-1).
The Redwings overcame the loss of Kunka to win their 19th consecutive game. They’ll play Moline on Saturday night for Benet’s first state title.
“That’s our captain, that’s our guy,” Fagbemi said. “Seeing him go down is one of the worst things you can imagine. It’s a big loss, just the way he plays, but we had to overcome it.”
Benet is uniquely well-suited to absorb the loss of a key player. The Redwings have had six different players lead them in scoring this season.
Driscoll didn’t miss in an opportunity to step forward. His first 3-pointer beat the first-quarter buzzer to put Benet ahead 18-16. His third came in the middle of a 9-0 run bridging the second and third quarters that put the Redwings in command up 35-20.
“Obviously Brady is a big part of our team, he’s been a role model of mine for four years,” said Driscoll, a senior guard. “But I wasn’t thinking about that at the time. I was thinking to do what I do well.”
That is many things. Besides his hot shooting, Driscoll also grabbed six rebounds and took a charge defensively. He was entrusted with guarding New Trier star Jake Fiegen, a Cornell recruit. Fiegen scored 26 points, but only eight came in the middle two quarters.
“Sam’s a starter. He just comes off the bench. We have six starters,” Heidkamp said. “He knows that, and he accepts the challenge. We switched Sammy onto Fiegen, and he made him earn what he got.”
The teams came out on fire in the first quarter, combining to shoot 13 of 22 from the floor. But New Trier (32-5), which scored 16 points in the first quarter, was only able to manage a combined 17 over the next two with eight points over an 11-minute stretch.
“The first quarter was a struggle for us defensively. They got whatever they wanted,” Heidkamp said. “I think our guys showed a little bit of resolve and a little bit of a commitment defensively. We won that game on the defensive end.”
Abusara led Benet’s 30-22 edge on the boards, along with his eight steals.
“I just told the guys we have to keep it up on the defensive end and the offense will come,” Abusara said. “We just had to keep getting stops.”
Benet, leading by 15 early in the third quarter, saw New Trier chip away at it, closing within eight.
Fagbemi shut the door on that comeback bid. He took an inbounds pass from Driscoll and swished an off-balance 3-pointer to end the third quarter with Benet ahead 44-33.
“I have to thank Sam for getting me the ball,” Fagbemi said. “I looked at him and said, ‘Get me the ball.’ He’s a big reason for that shot.”
Benet is back in the state championship game for the third time in the last decade. The Redwings lost the 2014 final to Young and the 2016 title contest to Curie.
But Heidkamp deflected on his personal history.
“This is about these guys right here. Those guys that played in ‘16 and ‘14 would tell you the same thing,” Heidkamp said.
“I’m thrilled to be here. We’re going to do whatever we can to give ourselves the best chance, and I’m going to put it in their hands. We’re excited to be there. We’ll give it our best shot. As far as my personal experience, that doesn’t have any bearing on these guys whatsoever. I have seen the Buffalo Bills documentary a couple times. Maybe these guys will find a way tomorrow.”
The matchup with Moline will be between No. 1 and No. 2 in the final Associated Press statewide rankings.
“Just keep winning. We have all the momentum right now,” Abusara said. “We just have to play with the same mentality we had this game.”