PEORIA – This brief, wildly entertaining and historic era of Mooseheart boys basketball is all about paradox.
Little ole Mooseheart, one of the state’s tiniest schools with the mission of giving children from disadvantaged homes a second chance, viewed as the Illinois high school basketball version of the Miami Heat?
Head-spinning in some respects, but the Ramblers of the past two seasons are about shock and awe, not “Aww, shucks.”
After his team’s 74-61 win Friday against Mendon Unity in an IHSA Class 1A state semifinal, Ramblers coach Ron Ahrens mused that most fans at Peoria Civic Center likely were rooting against the Ramblers, and not just those wearing Mustangs maroon.
It’s nothing personal, Ahrens realizes. It’s just the Ramblers are so … big.
Playing on Bradley University’s floor, Mooseheart again showcased a front line that would make most Division I college basketball coaches envious, with a 7-foot-1 center, a 6-foot-10 power forward and a 6-7 wing. That 6-7 wing, by the way, is pretty darn good. Mangisto Deng erupted for 31 points, somehow managing to overshadow the 6-10 Makur Puou’s 20 point, 18 rebound performance.
The Ramblers’ big fellas are gentle giants – as anyone who has observed them interact with little kids and happily sign autographs can attest – but March is all about rooting for the underdogs, and these Ramblers don’t pass underdog muster.
“I would think that everyone would want to see us lose, and I don’t blame them because I think they say it’s unfair, look how tall we are,” Ahrens said. “I’m sure there’s a very, very large majority out there that would like to see us lose. And you know what, that kind of helps us a little bit.”
Mooseheart has been around since 1913, and for the first 100 years, the Ramblers hardly made a peep on the Illinois basketball landscape. Enter Akim Nyang, Puou and Deng – each of whom suited up for the first time as juniors last year despite eligibility push-back from the IHSA – and the Ramblers suddenly looked more like a Chicago Public League juggernaut than a team used to butting heads with Paw Paw and Leland-Earlville.
On Friday, Mooseheart brought its full repertoire of sizzle to the big stage – the good (explosive athleticism, a ball-hawking defense), the bad (a bit too much hot-dogging, woeful free throw shooting) and the rim-rattling (when Puou attacks, defenders can be excused for showing more discretion than valor).
Mooseheart has yet to lose to a 1A team this season, and it seems doubtful that happens Saturday against a Heyworth team that doesn’t match up with Mooseheart much better than the Ramblers’ growing trail of victims.
The Ramblers are entertaining enough without forcing the issue, as they occasionally do when their leads hit double digits. An off-the-backboard pass attempt from sophomore Freddy Okito to Puou did not pan out in the third quarter Friday, and a gaffe like that didn’t seem so harmless once Unity whittled the lead to eight, and had the ball, early in the fourth quarter.
“It seems like that’s what they wanted to do – they wanted to show off a few times,” Mustangs forward Lane Davis said. “We figured that, hey, at some point maybe we can make our run.”
While Mooseheart generally has a big enough margin for error to absorb frittering away an overly ambitious possession or two, the Ramblers’ struggles at the free throw line are more problematic. They missed 16 free throws Friday, and opponents are becoming increasingly emboldened to hack away.
“It could come back to haunt us tomorrow [in the championship game],” Ahrens said. “It could really come back to haunt us.”
A more likely scenario is the Ramblers win it all. It would be quite a celebration, even if Ahrens isn’t counting on many outsiders joining in.
• Jay Schwab is sports editor of the Kane County Chronicle. He can be reached at 630-845-5382 or firstname.lastname@example.org.