PEORIA – Facing the statewide media after Friday’s IHSA Class 1A Boys Basketball state semifinal, Mooseheart forward Makur Puou was asked whether he was motivated to see the Red Ramblers join the ranks of some of the state’s best teams of all time.
What kind of grasp does Puou have on the proud history of Illinois high school basketball, the 6-foot-10 power forward was asked. He kept his reply simple.
“Not at all,” Puou said.
That actually was a slight exaggeration. He and his teammates – whether born in South Sudan like Puou or the U.S. – know this much: Mooseheart is one victory away from seizing its first state championship in school history after Friday’s 74-61 victory against Mendon Unity.
The Ramblers advance to Saturday’s 2 p.m. state championship game against Heyworth.
Unlike many of Mooseheart’s opponents, Unity did not appear intimidated in the early going. To the contrary, the Mustangs (20-12) jumped to a 12-4 lead before the Ramblers regrouped, scoring the final seven points of the opening quarter.
The Mustangs took to extreme measures in preparing for Mooseheart’s massive height advantage.
“We knew a lot of the normal passes we’d make were going to be really difficult, or weren’t going to be there at all,” Unity forward Lane Davis said. “So we tried preparing for that with coaches standing on chairs and stuff like that in practice, but that doesn’t really simulate the way they can jump and the way they can move and stuff.”
Despite Mooseheart’s typical assortment of blocks and dunks, it was a shot from beyond halfcourt at the halftime buzzer by junior Hameed Odunewu that might have drawn the afternoon’s most robust reaction at the Peoria Civic Center. Odunewu’s heave gave Mooseheart a 33-27 halftime lead moments after the Mustangs’ Alex Blickhan hit a 3 to bring Unity within three points.
“I just threw it up there, and I was watching it like ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait – it might go in,’” Odunewu said. “And then it just went in. I just threw it up.”
For the most part, the Mustangs kept the game competitive, largely thanks to a dynamite game from Blickhan, who scored 29 points and made 5 of 7 from 3-point land before fouling out.
“He is the best player we’ve faced all year, hands down, no doubt about it,” Ramblers coach Ron Ahrens said.
Mooseheart (28-3) benefited from its own huge scoring afternoon from senior forward Mangisto Deng. Deng scored 31 points while Puou had 20 points, 18 rebounds and six blocks.
The Ramblers might have begun their celebration prematurely after building an 18-point, third quarter lead. They came up empty while pursuing style points on a couple possessions, including an off-the-backboard pass from point guard Freddy Okito to Puou.
Mooseheart led, 54-41, after the third quarter, but more fireworks from Blickhan helped the Mustangs rally within eight points early in the fourth quarter, and Unity had a transition opportunity go awry that could have brought the Mustangs even closer.
From there, Mooseheart crawled to the finish line despite encountering its usual headaches at the free throw line. The Ramblers were 13 for 29 from the foul line, preventing them from putting the game out of reach in tidier fashion.
Odunewu scored 13 points and had nine rebounds for the Ramblers, who out-rebounded their western Illinois opposition, 52-32.
Mooseheart played in front of a youthful Ramblers cheering section as buses transported students of all ages from the Child City to Peoria to root on the Ramblers.
Ahrens said the team planned to dine at the nearby Pekin Moose Lodge Friday night.
“We try to give back to our community,” Ahrens said. “And that’s our community.”