HINCKLEY – Given the soap operalike buildup and charged atmosphere at Wednesday night’s Mooseheart boys basketball game at Hinckley-Big Rock, a disastrous collapse in the final few minutes had a chance to crush the Red Ramblers’ spirits.
Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens tried to emphasize perspective to his players after the Ramblers’ 58-51 loss in front of a sold-out crowd.
“At the end of the day, it’s a game,” Ahrens said. “We wake up tomorrow morning, we’re going to school, I’m going to work. ... That’s what I just told the kids in there. Hey, we got beat in a game. We have a long season ahead. We’ve got a lot of games left.”
The unspoken but elephant-in-the-room question, though, is how many of those games will be played with the Ramblers’ best players on the floor.
Wednesday’s matchup took on intriguing undertones because Hinckley-Big Rock reached out to the IHSA months ago to raise concerns about A-HOPE, the organization that placed South Sudanese transfer students Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng at Mooseheart.
The IHSA last week stripped that trio of its basketball eligibility for perceived inappropriate recruiting on Mooseheart’s part, though a Kane County judge on Tuesday ruled that the imposing trio be allowed to continue playing until Monday’s appeal in front of the IHSA Board of Directors.
Puou scored a game-high 25 points and corralled 17 rebounds, helping the Ramblers lead for much of the night, including 51-45 with 3:20 to play. But H-BR (5-1) closed the game on a 13-0 run as Mooseheart unraveled at both ends of the floor.
Defensively, the Ramblers lost sight of H-BR sharpshooter Jared Madden, who drained three loosely contested three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
“It seems like him and Bernie (Conley) have been around here for like 17 years,” Ahrens said. “Is that true? Check their eligibility.”
Mooseheart (3-3) led by as many as 10 in the fourth quarter and scored its final points on a Deng pullup in the lane to take the 51-45 lead. But Madden scored six of H-BR’s next eight points on three-pointers as the Royals took the lead, and a flurry of Mooseheart turnovers in the final minutes spelled doom.
As advantageous as is to wield a major size advantage – Akim Nyang (10 rebounds) stands 7-foot-1, Puou is 6-10 and Deng (13 points) is 6-7, guardplay looms large late in close games. The Ramblers continue to play without senior guard Oumaru Abdulahi (ankle injury).
“Whatever I do, I do with [my teammates],” said Puou, whose monstrous, three-point play off a one-handed jam gave the Ramblers a 44-35 lead early in the fourth quarter. “I can’t do nothing by myself.”
H-BR coach and athletic director Bill Sambrookes said after the game that he never intended to have Mooseheart players ruled ineligible but that it seemed questionable for the team to benefit from such promising, international transfer students.
“I thought for [the IHSA] to disqualify those kids was a huge step,” Sambrookes said. “There’s a mid-ground. There’s options between them playing and not playing if you’re going to penalize them for something. I don’t know what [the IHSA] found, and I guess that stuff will come out during the hearing next week.”
An estimated crowd of about 1,000 watched both Class 1A powerhouses exhibit good sportsmanship despite the tense, off-court circumstances. Many late-arriving fans were turned away at the door.
The Ramblers next play Saturday against Indiana prep school powerhouse La Lumiere, the last game before Monday’s appeal hearing. That was one of several challenging matchups Mooseheart lined up this season to account for its upgraded personnel.