From lightly attended games against obscure, small-town opponents to a sold-out showdown at Hinckley-Big Rock to the bright lights of TV cameras at news conferences about an eligibility controversy, the Mooseheart boys basketball team has seen a little bit of everything this winter.
Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens hopes the same take-it-as-it-comes, poised approach that high-profile South Sudanese transfer students Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng and their teammates have adopted so far will serve them well again in tonight’s IHSA Class 1A Westminster Christian Regional championship game against those same Hinckley-Big Rock Royals.
The game was moved from Westminster Christian to the larger Judson University gymnasium to accommodate what is expected to be a robust crowd.
Mooseheart won a district title in 1964 but has never won what is now called a regional championship.
“I don’t know, culturally, if they understand what we’re into,” Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said. “I tell them, you know what, 100 years we’ve been at Mooseheart, we want to win a regional title. I don’t know if they necessarily understand. They’re just going to go out and play basketball.
“Their goal is, let’s go out and play basketball. I don’t know if they’ll get all worried.”
Second-seeded Mooseheart (23-5) and top-seeded H-BR (24-4) are both enjoying banner seasons, with some intertwined history.
H-BR reached out to the IHSA to question the agency that placed Nyang, Puou and Deng at Mooseheart, and the IHSA temporarily stripped the trio’s eligibility before the IHSA Board of Directors voted to overturn the decision and allow the boys – ranging in height from 6-foot-7 to 7-foot-1 – to compete. That happened in mid-December, less than a week after the Royals closed the game on a 13-0 run to rally past Mooseheart, 58-51, in a sold-out game in Hinckley.
In the first meeting with H-BR, Royals sharpshooter Jared Madden burned Mooseheart in the fourth quarter and a flurry of late turnovers exposed Mooseheart’s ball-handling vulnerabilities under duress.
Despite Mooseheart’s massive size advantage, Ahrens knows playing a well-schooled, veteran team that can shoot will be a huge challenge.
“They’re the best in our area,” Ahrens said after Mooseheart’s 45-30 win against Westminster Christian in Wednesday’s semifinal. “I just counted it up tonight, they have 11 seniors, I thought it was nine. They play good team basketball together, they play hard and, you know what, they’re probably going to come out with kind of the same game plan – double Makur, they’ll man up Mangisto, and we’ve just got to get our kids moving a little more so we can be more effective offensively.”
While Mooseheart’s frontcourt is formidable at both ends of the floor, the backcourt remains a question mark. The Ramblers lost starting guard Oumaru Abdualahi to injury early in the season, and another starting guard, defensive specialist Kevin Gbadebo, injured his rotator cuff in the Ramblers’ final regular season game against Chicago Hope. Gbadebo has not played in the team’s first two postseason games and is “kind of day-to-day right now,” Ahrens said.