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Mooseheart dunks, swats and shoots way to state championship

Mooseheart's Akim Nyang (left) and Josh Tucker celebrate their 1A state title game 
victory over Heyworth after the final buzzer on Saturday in Peoria.
Mooseheart's Akim Nyang (left) and Josh Tucker celebrate their 1A state title game victory over Heyworth after the final buzzer on Saturday in Peoria.

PEORIA – Makur Puou exploded to the rim for a thunderous dunk, then accidentally crashed squarely on top of Heyworth forward Colten Reeves' back on his way down.

Reeves didn't care for Puou's landing spot, and momentarily reacted angrily before moving on, realizing there was nothing that could be done.

That second quarter play might have been the perfect image for Mooseheart's championship season. The Ramblers – too tall, too powerful, too athletic for the rest of the IHSA Class 1A state field – completed their season with a 63-47 win Saturday against Heyworth in the state championship game at the Peoria Civic Center.

After the game, a fan showed the 6-foot-10 Puou a photo of his ferocious dunk on a cellphone.

"One of my friends said he's going to make it a big poster," Puou said. "That would be cool."

The victory provided Mooseheart its first team state championship in school history, and offered a satisfying ending to the twist-filled run for Mooseheart seniors Akim Nyang, Mangisto Deng and Puou, whose eligibility was briefly revoked last year by the IHSA.

In what became classic Mooseheart style, the Ramblers offered their fans a substantial dose of heartburn to counterbalance the game's many scintillating moments.

Mooseheart (29-3) surged to a 19-2 lead to start the game, settled for a 33-27 halftime edge, then saw the Hornets (26-8) briefly overtake them during the third quarter. To make matters worse for Mooseheart – much worse – starting point guard Freddy Okito was out of sight, receiving medical attention after taking an elbow to the nose and hitting his head on the padding of the basket after a hard fall while scrambling back on defense early in the third quarter.

Okito is the Ramblers' best ball-handler by a longshot, and Heyworth feasted on Mooseheart turnovers in his absence.

"While I was doing the running, concussion test, I asked one of the kids that was helping what was going on [in the game]," Okito said. "He said we were down one. I was like 'Whoa, hold on.' And then I just knew I had to get back out here and try and help us get back up."

Okito returned at the 2:09 mark of the third quarter, and the Ramblers breathed easier, closing the quarter more crisply for a 45-38 lead entering the fourth.

Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens recalled emphasizing the importance of Okito leading up to the season despite the flashier presences of the towering South Sudanese trio, plus ball-hawking junior guard Hameed Odunewu.

"I said that a long time ago, and it's proven to be right," Ahrens said. "Freddy's out and we're struggling, they go up one. We get Freddy back out of the locker room after the concussion tests. … He comes back on the floor, and we win by 16. It just proves my point."

Puou notched seven of Mooseheart's 10 blocks on the afternoon. Despite being drastically outsized, Heyworth attacked inside frequently, seldom coming away with points.

"In the film that I watched of them, a lot of teams try to attack their big guys, and a lot of times they don't even have to jump to block your shot," Heyworth coach Tom Eller said. "So we were forcing some bad shots on the inside, so we tried to make sure we were getting open looks on the perimeter, and for a nice stretch in there, we were knocking those shots down."

Mooseheart, though, went on a 15-0 run spanning the end of the third and start of the fourth quarters, capped by a slick, crosscourt bounce pass from J.J. Odunsi to Odunewu, who scooped in the fast-break basket for a 54-38 Ramblers lead with 5:36 to play in the fourth quarter.

One day after scoring 31 points in Mooseheart's state semifinal win, Deng scored 27 in the final, while Puou had 15 points and 12 rebounds and Odunewu scored 11.

After surviving tight games against Newark and Chicago Hope earlier in the postseason, the Ramblers raised their game, winning each of their last four contests by 15 points or more.

But this season – and this group – has always been about much more than basketball. The South Sudanese students came to Mooseheart as sophomores, sitting out their first year to become eligible, with hopes that a U.S. education could help them become successful in their war-ravaged homeland. Deng and Puou are now considered Division I college basketball prospects, though they might need to first attend a prep school or junior college to meet NCAA eligibility requirements.

Ahrens spoke passionately about their futures after the victory celebration, suggesting that each of the three is capable of becoming successful businessmen or even holding high political office in South Sudan because of their work ethics and commitment to education.

Deng has an alternate concept for the future.

"Manny talks to me all the time about building a Mooseheart in South Sudan, and he wants me to come out and run it," Ahrens said. "I said you know what, hey, I'm all for it. I haven't run that by my wife yet."

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