FLORA, Ill. --- Coaches and area fans have the matchup they wanted. The two tallest teams in the IHSA Class 2A Regional tournament field here will meet in the championship game.
Edwards County (20-6), the coaches’ No. 3 seed in the sub-sectional, defeated Fairfield, 49-42, on Wednesday night in the semifinals to advance to Friday’s title tilt against second-seeded Mount Carmel (24-4), a 62-41 winner over Flora on Tuesday. The winner will join other regional champions from Eldorado, Newton and Pana in West Frankfort for the Sectional tournament next week.
For Mount Carmel, which fell two spots to ninth in this week’s Associated Press Class 2A poll, the win was important for more than the obvious reason.
“It was good to get that bad taste out of our mouth from last Friday,” said coach Tyler Buss, in reference to a 58-57 loss to Washington, Indiana in a winner-take-all game to decide the Big 8 Conference championship four days prior.
“I thought our guys were very focused, very into the game plan. They are on a mission right now. You can feel it on the bus and in the locker room.”
The Golden Aces showed it throughout, vaulting to a quick 20-6 lead against the host Wolves. By halftime, the lead was 19 points, with the margin reaching 23 points near the close.
Their two 6-foot-8 inside threats – Justin Carpenter and Jackson Marcotte – led the way, with 17 points and 14, respectively. But sophomores Austin Rager and Bret Doan, who connected on two straight 3-point field goals at the start, also landed in double figures, at 11 and 10.
“It was a complete game,” Buss said. “We imposed our will on them early, getting the ball inside. Once we were hitting the outside shot, which really opened things up.”
The solid play of Rager and Doan in the game can’t be overstated, especially at tournament time, according to Buss. “Anytime you get to this level, you’re going to see good coaches and players. They are going to take certain things away from you, and that’s where you need those complementary guys. Those guys (Rager and Doan) are just sophomores. But the bigger the game, the better they play.”
Edwards County is one of the few teams that can challenge Mount Carmel on the inside, as the Lions counter with 6-foot-6 senior Nathaniel Schmittler and 6-5 sophomore Justin Wallace. Throw in 6-1 sophomore standout Cade Schmittler, and you can see why fans in Albion are excited about Russ Gerlach’s team. A 20-win season is indeed rare, this season being the first at that milestone since 1997-98 and only the second since 1955-56.
Gerlach’s accomplishments have not been lost on Buss. “He’s done a tremendous job at Edwards County," he said. "We saw him back in the day at Wayne City, and you could just tell, he is a basketball guy. He lives and breathes it.”
This is Edwards County’s first year in Class 2A, after spending the last nine seasons in the smaller Class 1A ranks following the IHSA move to a four-class system in 2007-08. The Lions won a regional crown last year in 1A. Mount Carmel has won three of the last four regional titles.
ACES ASIDES… Jackson Marcotte appeared to land on his arm during a battle for a loose ball in Tuesday’s game. He sat out for a short time but later returned showing no ill effects. Marcotte also announced via Twitter this week that he has received two offers to play college football, one from Division I Wyoming, the other from FCS school Southern Illinois University. He has already visited Arkansas… The Aces’ 24 wins matches the total for the 1996-97 team (24-5). The last Aces team to win 25 games was 1953-54, the senior season for all-time great Archie Dees (25-4).