WEST FRANKFORT — Golden Aces basketball coach Tyler Buss first helped his team deal with the emotional finality of a season-ending loss in the semifinals of the IHSA Class 2A Sectional tournament.
“That’s a good team in that locker room,” Buss said. “We didn’t always play like it this season, and there were some ups and downs. But I am so proud of these guys.”
What Buss guided on the floor was perhaps the Aces’ best effort of the year.
“Something clicked and we took a very good Nashville team to the wire,” said Buss after a 72-66 overtime loss to one of southern Illinois’ premier programs. “Our guys did not want this run to end. You walk into this pretty gym and wonder if we’ll be starry-eyed, but we battled for four quarters. We didn’t get wound up when we got behind. We just kept battling.”
Mt. Carmel’s final record was 14-15, including a 9-4 finish against Illinois opponents. Nashville (24-7) advances to the championship game on Friday night, against either No. 1-ranked Harrisburg (29-1), or Chester, who play on Wednesday night.
It was a game stretched beyond regulation because of Reece Metcalf’s jump shot with 1:05 remaining that left things tied 60-60 pending the four minute overtime period.
Foul trouble which had been building throughout finally undid the Aces in the extra stanza. Three starters, Levi Laws, Thomas Allen, and Joey Molstad fouled out. The other two, Metcalf and Riley Raber, finished with four fouls each.
Nashville scored the last six points of the game at the foul line, a place the Hornets struggled at. But they got enough chances at the stripe (38) that hitting just 21 of them still proved to be enough. The Aces only mustered nine of 21 free throws.
After Metcalf’s jumper tied the game, Nashville worked the clock to the 10.4 second mark. But the Hornets lost the ball, and Mt. Carmel scrambled to set up a last second shot. Buss got a time out from the game officials with :01.1 left on the clock, but that was a split second before Laws hit a half-court shot that would have won the game.
“What are the chances of that,” lamented Buss. “There have been times I’ve let it play through, but that’s usually when (Laws) has got more time to get to the basket. I wanted to use the time out to get a better shot off.”
The shot they got was indeed better, but it was off the mark and after the buzzer, setting the stage for overtime.
Mt. Carmel (14-15) got off to a good start, jumping to a 6-0 lead. Nashville regrouped to get its first lead, 14-13, on an inside basket by Devin Holle near the end of the first quarter.
A 3-point field goal by Molstad brought the Aces to within 31-30 at halftime.
Royce Newman, a promising 6-foot-6 freshman, led Nashville with 17 points, most coming in the first half. Buss said the Aces handled him better in the second half.
“He just keeps posting up,” Buss said. “They’re good enough out front to get it to him after a couple of rotations. C.J. (Diel) did a good job of pushing him away from the basket as much as he could. (Newman) is by far the best big kid we’ve played all year long.”
Metcalf led the way for the Aces with 25 points. Laws added 21, and Diel 12 points.
The Aces say goodbye to three seniors - Molstad, Davis Vargo and Cole Berry - who brought the Aces an improvement of five wins over last year. With four starters back next year, the future looks extremely bright. Buss is hopeful that the sectional experience helped, while making next year’s Aces hungry for more.
“That was a fun basketball game. Our guys got a sniff of it,” Buss said. “Hopefully that will motivate us to make sure the run goes a little farther next year.”
NOTES: Laws and Bryce Pavia will be back in West Frankfort on Friday for the 3-point Showdown, starting at 6 p.m.