PEORIA, Ill. --- Everything ran like clockwork on Thursday for the state-bound Mount Carmel boys’ basketball team.
After a 7:30 a.m. sendoff from the Hilltop, the yellow District 348 school bus motored its way to Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, where coach Tyler Buss’ alma mater threw open the doors to Lantz Gum for a mid-morning workout.
The entourage arrived in Peoria in time for a photography session followed by 30 minutes of court time on the Carver Arena floor, where the Golden Aces will return Friday for the Class 2A semifinal game against Kankakee Bishop McNamara.
A pre-tournament banquet wrapped up the festivities on the eve of Mount Carmel’s first state tournament appearance since 1944.
The schedule was arranged in advance by Buss, of course.
“In our opening team meeting before we ever stepped foot on the floor we passed out an itinerary starting with the sendoff on Thursday and the practice at Eastern Illinois, right down to the hour,” said Buss, with no previous experience with this stuff either in his six years as head coach.
“We showed them that, then we took it from them. I told them we need to play in practice with a championship mentality all year long. If you do that, this piece of paper will be one of the most special memories of your life.
“Then we passed it back out just before the regional started just as a little reminder of what we’re playing for.”
The ploy wasn’t lost on Justin Carpenter, the lone senior in the starting lineup (13.8 points per game).
“That was really cool,” Carpenter said. “He had the whole schedule printed out of what our schedule would be like if we went to Peoria. That really motivated us to get there because it seemed like fun and a lot of great things to do.”
At the time, three weeks ago, Mount Carmel (28-4) was still in the aftermath of a crushing defeat in the winner-take-all game to decide the Big 8 Conference championship on the final night of the regular season. Two free throws from Washington’s Billy Fleetwood with 1.6 seconds remaining gave the Hatchets a 58-57 win, denying the Aces their first-ever conference title in their 14th year in the league.
What has happened since will always remain a local legend. The Aces ripped off five straight post-season wins, two against Top 10 teams, and four against teams they had beaten earlier in the season.
Yet it became a different club, better defensively, dramatically more multi-functional on offense, and almost impervious to nerves.
Call them Aces 2.0. And it all began with Buss’ words after the Washington loss.
“I told them, ‘If you make the kind of run that we can make, Washington will be a distant memory.’ Does anyone think about Washington anymore?”
Jackson Marcotte, who learned Tursday at the banquet that he has been named to the 2nd team All-State team, said the recent transformation has centered on confidence. “We trust each other,” he said. “Never before a game are we freaking out. We go into the game calm. Our big motto this year was ‘don’t ride the roller coaster.’ Stay steady. We’ve been great at that.”
Carpenter was also named to the team, as an Honorable Mention selection.
The other semifinal, pitting No. 3-ranked Chicago Orr (21-5) and unranked Monticello (23-5) begins at 7:15 p.m. On Saturday, the third-place game begins at 5:30 p.m. with the Class 2A state championship game at 7:30 p.m.
Class 1A has also brought a Final Four to Carver Arena. The smaller division games are earlier in the day. So, a total of eight teams are in Peoria for the first of two weekends of state final play. Larger Class 3A and 4A schools are in town next weekend.