MOUMT CARMEL, Ill. – Mount Carmel came within 1.6 seconds of winning its first-ever Big 8 Conference boys’ basketball championship. Thanks to Billy Fleetwood, the Golden Aces will have to wait a little longer.
Fleetwood hit two free throws with 1.6 seconds left to give Washington a 58-57 victory in a winner-take-all game on Friday night at the Hilltop. Mount Carmel (23-4, 5-1 in Big 8) had its’ 11-game winning streak snapped when Justin Carpenter’s 50-foot heave fell short at the buzzer.
It was Carpenter who had given the Aces a 57-56 lead with a 24-foot 3-point field goal with 7.1 seconds remaining, setting the stage for Fleetwood’s desperate drive to the basket that produced a foul and subsequent game-winning free throws.
“That stinks,” said Mount Carmel coach Tyler on his post-game radio show upon his return from the locker room. “That was a tough spot there, to talk to those guys They put a lot into this.”
The Aces spent most of the night clamping down on 6-foot-1 Washington senior Matthew Stephenson, who has transformed the Hatchets since his return from an injury early in the season (They had won 11 in a row before a non-conference loss (49-46) last week to Bloomfield). Their box-and-one worked, too, as Stephens was held to four points.
That left Fleetwood to take advantage of new-found offensive freedom, and the 5-10 junior responded with a game-high 22 points. “We didn’t have an answer for him tonight. I wouldn’t have guessed that coming in. So, give Washington credit,” said Buss.
Mount Carmel, ranked seventh in the last Associated Press Class 2A poll, led by six points, 19-13, at the end of the first quarter. Washington (14-6, 6-0) won the next two frames, slicing its’ deficit to two points (28-26) by halftime, then grabbing the lead (38-36) at the end of the third quarter.
The Hatchet lead grew to six points before Bret Doan hit a 26-foot 3-pointer to cut the debt in half with 45 seconds remaining and get the Aces back on track, almost in time.
“I think we got a little bit gassed in the third quarter, and didn’t sub as much as normal, and we gave up too much dribble penetration,” Buss said. “We didn’t get the ball inside as much. When we did it was easy for us.”
Carpenter, one of three seniors honored on Senior Day (the others being Luke Berberich and Jorge Mercado Figueroa), led Mount Carmel with 18 points. Jackson Marcotte finished with 16, while Doan added nine. Austin Rager had eight, and Brayden Stipp totaled six to round out the scoring. Washington won on Saturday, 48-45, to improve to 15-6. The Hatchets wrap up the regular season on Feb. 24 against Evansville Memorial (13-7).
Buss said Mount Carmel needs to “lick our wounds and turn the page pretty quick,” because the post-season beckons. Mt. Carmel opens play in the IHSA Class 2A Regional tournament in Flora on Tuesday, against the winner of Monday’s first-round game between the host Wolves and Hamilton County. The Aces enter as the No., 2 seed overall in the sub-sectional, and the top seed of the five teams entered at the regional
“Now that it’s win or go home, we can’t put ourselves in a position where calls at the end of the game can determine if we go home or not,” Buss said. “We’ve got to get it done before that.”
Washington, which won the junior varsity contest, 69-29, also got 19 points from 6-2 Jacob Overton in the varsity tile.
ACES ASIDES… The second-place Big 8 Conference finish is still the best ever for Mount Carmel in 14 years in the league… The Aces 23-4 regular-season finish is the best since 1996-97, when a Rick Johnston-coached team went 24-5… Aces have won three of the last four regional titles, all in Class 2A.