MOOSEHEART – Win, lose or draw, there were going to be wide smiles Tuesday night from Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng.
The South Sudanese transfers’ long-awaited home debut with the Mooseheart boys basketball program finally arrived as the Red Ramblers faced Leland-Earlville in nonconference play. The trio, now juniors, had to sit out last season to fulfill IHSA eligibility requirements.
“We’ve been waiting for a long time so now we’re ready and we’re very excited to play and to represent our school, Mooseheart,” Puou said after the Ramblers routed the Panthers, 60-45.
Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said the trio’s love of basketball is “probably more than anyone I’ve coached.”
“Them being on the floor is extremely important to them, and it’s extremely important for us to have them on the floor because that helps them develop a lot of things that we believe in, good sportsmanship, handling adversity, all that kind of stuff,” Ahrens said. “It’s been great. They’re easy to coach.”
The Ramblers also benefited from the trio’s on-court contributions during Tuesday’s home opener.
For the first time in the young season, Mooseheart (2-2) played an opponent of similar enrollment, though there was a height disparity overwhelmingly in Mooseheart’s favor. That will typically be the case this season.
Nyang is listed at 7-foot-1, Puou 6-10 and Deng 6-7. Leland-Earlville started nobody taller than 6-foot.
Despite playing little more than half the game, Puou continued to emerge as the team’s premier weapon, scoring 19 points to go with nine rebounds and five blocked shots. Nyang swatted three shots and added four points and five rebounds, while Deng, a guard despite being 6-7, had nine points, four rebounds and a block.
Starting alongside explosively athletic Mooseheart senior guards Oumaru Abdulahi and Kevin Gbadebo, the South Sudanese newcomers shuttled in and out of the game as part of wholesale substitutions in each quarter. Their final exit came shortly after Puou’s third dunk of the evening, with the Ramblers ahead 49-29 and 6:51 to play in the game.
“In all honesty in the fourth quarter, I sat the first-teamers down because I wanted them to watch the second-teamers run our offense because our second team runs our offense better than our first guys,” Ahrens said.
The Panthers (1-4) made a run against Mooseheart’s reserves, coming as close as 54-45 with 2:35 left, but the Ramblers kept Leland-Earlville off the scoreboard the rest of the way.
Leland-Earlville coach Jason Zaleski encouraged his guys to fire away as circumstances permitted against Mooseheart’s imposing defense.
“We know that we have guys who can shoot very well,” Zaleski said. “Against a team like this, you catch it, if they’re sagging off you, don’t hesitate. Put it up tonight.”
Senior reserve Jon Hart added eight points and seven rebounds for Mooseheart.
Despite the lopsided score, Nyang, Puou and Deng remained businesslike while on the bench and supportive of their teammates as they sought to absorb the nuances of organized basketball.
Considering Abdulahi – a standout high jumper at Mooseheart – missed his junior year with an injury, almost all of the Ramblers’ top players are varsity novices – albeit athletic, gifted ones.
“One thing about us, we’re going to continue to get better the more and more they understand high school basketball,” Ahrens said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
A nice crowd seemingly enjoyed checking out the new-look Ramblers and even started the wave during the fourth quarter.
Mooseheart opened its season by going 1-2 at the State Farm Tournament of Champions in downstate Washington, where the Ramblers closed the event with a 50-37 win against Springfield, a school of about 1,450 students.