Once the Mooseheart boys basketball team popped Hinckley-Big Rock to win the program’s first regional championship, the thrilling possibilities around the corner could not be ignored.
The Ramblers, then winners of 15 straight games, were headed home to play in a Class 1A sectional, and appeared a likely bet to head downstate this weekend for the state tournament in Peoria.
That prospect seemed just as likely when the Ramblers led Chicagoland Jewish by 10 points with a little more than 3 minutes to go in Wednesday night’s sectional semifinal. Then came a collapse so painful that coach Ron Ahrens still hasn’t had the stomach to review the game tape to dissect what went awry.
Chicagoland Jewish closed the game on a 16-3 run to stun the Red Ramblers, 70-67.
“I haven’t watched it yet. I will here in a couple weeks,” Ahrens said on Monday. “It’’ll be what could I have done different to maybe help us win that game. It will be nothing about how did the kids play, did somebody play really bad, it’s going to be more about what am I going to have to do next year so we don’t lose a late lead like that.”
As disappointed as Mooseheart was to see its promising postseason end in such exasperating fashion, Ahrens is careful not to attach too much emotional pain to the loss.
After all, Mooseheart was led by three transfer students from South Sudan – Makur Puou, Mangisto Deng and Akim Nyang – who have dealt with plenty of real-world heartache.
“You know with our kids, because many come from disadvantaged backgrounds, they deal with tougher stuff than losing a basketball game in their lifetime,” Ahrens said. “We put it into perspective that way. You know what, it’s a game, we move on, we start worrying about next year. We start worrying about our summer league coming up.”
That’s not to say Ahrens is ready to brush off the late-game collapse against Chicagoland Jewish or, for that matter, a similar meltdown in a regular season loss at Hinckley-Big Rock.
Mooseheart is slated to return almost all of its key contributors from this year’s 24-6 squad, and Ahrens wants the group to focus on its deficiencies between now and November. Ahrens considers those to be ball-handling and conditioning.
“I think [taking care of the ball] was one of our major issues not only in this game but in all the games we lost,” Ahrens said. “We weren’t able to handle the defensive pressure. We have to get better there, and I think we need to get better conditioned. I thought we looked extremely tired [late in the Chicagoland Jewish game].
“I don’t think we’re as well conditioned as our guys thought they were because I thought they looked tired, and when they got tired, I think you make some major mental errors.”
On the ball-handling front, Ahrens said he expects point guard Freddy Okito, who saw limited action this season as a freshman, to develop into a major piece of the backcourt solution for next year’s Ramblers.
Puou, Deng and Nyang – whose eligibility dispute with the IHSA stirred statewide media attention in December – have one more season of eligibility with the Ramblers. They each are part of the Indiana Elite AAU program, though the 6-foot-10 Puou plays with a higher-level team than Deng and Nyang.
Ahrens isn’t a big proponent of AAU ball but hopes the trio’s AAU experiences pay off. They are also expected to be part of Mooseheart’s summer team, which will compete at the Geneva Summer League for the second straight year. Ahrens emphasized this season that the juniors were more like freshmen from an experience standpoint.
“I guess that’s the upside of AAU basketball, they’re actually getting to play games, which is good experience for them against very, very high quality competition,” Ahrens said. “It can’t hurt you, but I just don’t think [AAU ball] helps them fundamentally.”
Mooseheart upgraded its nonconference schedule this season to give its new-look squad, capable of crushing most 1A foes, a challenge. A similar plan is in place for next year; Ahrens said the team expects to play in a downstate Thanksgiving tournament field at Canton that will include Peoria Manual, and the Ramblers are ticketed to join Batavia’s Night of Hoops field, where York would be the opponent.
Ahrens is trying to take a balanced approach with scheduling.
“The thing is it’s tough to schedule for one year and to switch our schedule,” Ahrens said. “And I can’t get rid of teams we’ve played for a long time because I don’t want to, honestly. I’ve been here 13 years, we’ve been playing Leland 13 years. I don’t really want to [kick them] off our schedule. We want to be good that way, as well.”