DeKALB – From the moment Mooseheart’s big three – literally, a BIG three – became eligible, visions of an unprecedented downstate run for the Red Ramblers’ boys basketball program were impossible to suppress.
After the South Sudanese transfer students sat out as sophomores, Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng helped lead Mooseheart to a dynamite season last year, but it ended with a jarring collapse in a sectional loss to Chicagoland Jewish.
On Tuesday, the Ramblers’ leaders cashed in on their shot to make amends. Mooseheart routed Lanark Eastland, 59-41, in an IHSA Class 1A Northern Illinois University Supersectional, earning the program its first downstate berth and ensuring the school its first IHSA team trophy.
“Like [Mangisto Deng] keeps saying, we walked out [last year] with broken hearts,” Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said. “And this year, we’re not. We’re extremely happy. We have two more games.”
In Friday’s 1A state semifinal, Mooseheart will face western Illinois power Mendon Unity, a 67-49 winner Tuesday over Waterloo Gibault in the Jacksonville Supersectional.
After Tuesday’s win, a scene reminiscent of so many others the past couple of years unfolded for Mooseheart (27-5). Players signed autographs, lifted small children skyward and smiled wide.
Deng said his jubilation was tempered considering how realistic it is for the Ramblers to go all the way. Mooseheart has yet to lose to a 1A team with its core group; two of the Ramblers’ losses came with usual JV players filling in at the conference tournament.
“I’m excited but I’m not that excited, you know what I mean?” Deng said. “I want to go to state. I’m not saying nobody’s going to beat us because we have to go over there and win it. But if we win it … it’s going to be a great feeling, to make the history.”
After a sluggish start by both teams, Mooseheart controlled the game, finding a semblance of offensive rhythm late in the first quarter for a 12-4 lead. Eastland coach Tony Dunlap – whose Cougars finished fourth in Class 1A last year – thought his squad’s tentative start set a problematic tone.
“They just weren’t ready, mentally,” Dunlap said. “I thought we’d be the more experienced team walking on the floor, and both teams looked like it was the first time ever walking on the floor at supers. The first three or four minutes were a big difference in the game. We had a lot of opportunities, and we didn’t take advantage of it.”
Eastland (26-5) scored the last six points of the first half to come within 21-13 at halftime, but Puou scored eight of his game-high 24 points in the opening minutes of the third quarter, and the Ramblers were in strong shape from then on.
Despite their tallest player standing 6-foot-5 – three of Mooseheart’s starters are taller – the Cougars out-rebounded the Ramblers, 39-38. Eastland’s 17 offensive rebounds were 10 more than Mooseheart managed.
Ahrens said he thinks Tuesday marked the first game all season his team lost the rebounding battle, which figures to be a popular talking point at practice between now and Friday.
“We’re going to talk about how to get the rebound first because our team is not an offensive team. We’re a defensive team,” Deng said. “If we play great defense, we’re going to win, so we’re definitely going to talk about it.”
Despite its rebounding prowess, Eastland – likely thrown off-kilter by a combination of Mooseheart’s vaunted size and the airy environs at NIU’s Convocation Center – shot only 24 percent on the night, going 15 of 63 from the floor. Skylar Paulson scored 17 points and Dalton Shaner added 14, though Shaner needed 25 shots to get there.
Free-throw shooting is a main weakness for Mooseheart. The Ramblers were 16 of 27 from the line against the Cougars, an OK showing by their standards. They spent much of the fourth quarter at the line.
“I wasn’t as sick to my stomach as I was a couple games back before against Chicago Hope,” Ahrens said. “I thought we did a lot better.”
Puou had 17 rebounds and five blocks to go with his 24 points. Deng scored 15 points and reserve guard JJ Udunsi added nine points for the Ramblers.
A memorable week awaits for Mooseheart’s players, but Ahrens said the team’s triumph resonates far beyond this year’s Ramblers.
“It’s just great that everyone gets to enjoy it,” Ahrens said. “We have over a million Moose members that are going to be able to sit here and enjoy it as much as these kids do because those are the guys that give us an opportunity to get kids to play basketball for us. It’s not just my guys in the locker room and us. It’s a community of Moose members that absolutely love us. They’re going to experience this first trophy as much as we are.”