Bethel College and the University of Notre Dame. David and Goliath. Two teams who find themselves at opposite sides of the spectrum in terms of size in basketball programs and two teams with totally different agendas. For one side: take care of the challenger and fix the small bugs. For the other: keep up with the big guy and defy the odds.
Even though I had known about the event for months, I still couldn’t get over the fact that both Bethel blue and WilHelm were both at gate B of the Notre Dame football stadium. Long tables with blue tablecloth stretched down a couple hallways. The smells of gameday burgers and hot dogs filled the air while people of all ages soaked in the atmosphere. Bethel people ranged from children of alumni to the oldest of faculty and staff. The scene was like a great big family reunion celebrating a common connection: Bethel College.There was a definite sense of anticipation in the air. How would our good ol’ boys fair against the high and mighty Fighting Irish? Some fans were optimistic about the Pilots’ chances, others not so much. As one anonymous Bethel alumni put it, “We’ve had teams in the past who could have beaten Notre Dame, but this is not one of those teams.” However, even these fans admitted that on any given night, the mighty can fall. Walking into Purcell Pavilion, I found myself stumbling awkwardly to my seat, all the way up in Section 113, row 9, seat 7. It was odd seeing Tanner Shepherd, Bethel senior guard, pressing Notre Dame guard Rex Pflueger in a game. Over 9,000 people were in attendance, but it felt even bigger because of the swarm of Bethel blue. I had to throw all my school pride and expectations out of the way before the game, so as not to ruin my experience. The Pilots went up 7-2 to start the game. The fanbase was roaring because this was exactly what they wanted. The Irish fired back and took the lead with 16:34 left to go in the first half. Then, Bethel came back to take the lead briefly 11-9, before Irish took it back with 15 minutes left in the first half. The game truly seemed like an actual NCAA Division I college basketball game. Two worthy opponents feeling each other out. Would the Pilots pull off the feat? Alas, they would not. Notre Dame would remain in the lead the rest of the way and there was nothing the Pilots could do about it. The Pilots were dominated by brute strength and a sharp mental edge. Notre Dame forward Bonzie Colson made Bethel forward Gage Ott look like a high school basketball player. Both Colson and his teammate Martinas Geben put up double-doubles; Colson with 19 points and 11 rebounds, Geben with 13 points and 10 rebounds. Then, the game went from bad to worse. The Pilots gave up way too many turnovers at the end of the first half and going into the second half. The Pilots had 19 turnovers overall. At one point in the second half, the jumbotron read, “Points off turnovers. Irish: 15, Pilots: 0.” The Irish won 88-59. At one point, they were up 33 points. At the end of the day, the Irish were pushed to play like it was a real game, but they exposed the Pilots’ weaknesses quickly. Despite the blowout, the Pilot fans remained excited for their team. When redshirt freshman Trey Burns crossed over an Irish player and buried a three pointer with a minute and a half left to go in the game, the crowd went berserk even though the game was well out of reach. It was like watching a tee ball game when the young batter gets their first hit ever and the parents are extremely excited for them. Truly the oddest sight to see during a college basketball game. Nevertheless, the Bethel Pilots experienced what it was like to play a NCAA Division I opponent and gained national attention in the process. And perhaps, if the stars align for a matchup like this in the future, the Pilots might just pull out a win.