DeKALB – The Eastland Cougars had their chances, thanks to hitting the boards hard and finding a little aggression.
But they couldn't capitalize on it early, and that cost them in the end.
After trimming a 14-point deficit to eight heading into halftime, the Cougars found themselves on the wrong end of a Mooseheart run to open the second half in a 59-41 loss at the Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional on Tuesday night at NIU's Convocation Center.
"We had a lot of opportunities, especially after the first 4 minutes," Eastland coach Tony Dunlap said, "but we missed out on them. They were long and very athletic, but I think we just missed shots more than they altered them. We weren't mentally tough enough at the start, and that was my fault."
The start is what the Cougars (26-5) will lament when they look back on this one. They trailed 8-1 after the first 6 minutes, fell behind 15-4 after the opening minute of the second quarter, and dug a 21-7 hole with 3:30 left before halftime.
Mooseheart (27-3) did almost all of its damage with its size inside. The 6-foot-10 Makur Puou and the 6-7 Mangisto Deng combined for 10 points during that early surge, with none of their baskets coming from outside of 5 feet.
"I thought we'd be the more experienced team out there, with us being here last year and it being their first time," Dunlap said, "but both teams looked like they'd never played at the supersectional before. The first few minutes of the first two quarters made a big difference, and it was in their favor."
But Eastland wasn't about to give in. Looking for their second straight trip to the state tournament, the Cougars battled back with the final six points of the second quarter – and it could've been more if a couple of missed layups would have fallen – to cut the halftime deficit to 21-13.
"We finally got a little more aggressive. and it helped us get back in the game," Eastland senior Skylar Paulson said. "We limited them to one shot, rebounded well and got some shots to go down on the other end. We got it a little closer a couple of times, but we just didn't do enough."
The Red Ramblers took control in the third quarter, riding the hot hand of Puou. The senior big man scored Mooseheart's first eight points of the second half for a 29-15 lead, and when Deng bookended a pair of post buckets around Hameed Odunewu's coast-to-coast layup, the Ramblers led 35-17 with 9½ minutes left in the game.
"I was a little concerned at halftime, because we looked tired at the end of the first half," Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said. "But we set a goal in the locker room to be up by 15 points at the end of the third quarter, and the guys really responded. We came out on fire, and played one of the better third quarters I've seen us play."
In addition to the offensive success, Mooseheart also dictated things defensively. Eastland didn't score its first field goal until the 1:27 mark of the first quarter, and then missed its first 12 shots of the second half before Dalton Shaner's up-and-under move on a baseline drive with 1:29 left in the third period.
Knowing that Shaner was the Cougars' go-to guy, the Ramblers marked him every time he moved through their 1-2-1 halfcourt zone, and made sure he didn't get any easy looks. The 6-foot senior guard finished with 14 points and seven rebounds, but was limited to 6-for-25 shooting from the floor – including 2-for-11 from 3-point range.
"They did a good job getting up in our faces," Shaner said, "and even when we'd take them on the dribble and get past them, their length allowed them to still get a hand in our faces. They did a nice job staying with us, even off the drive, and it was tough to find good looks."
Eastland trailed by as many as 19 points in the second half, but rallied again thanks to some Mooseheart missed free throws. The Cougars extended the game by fouling over the final 4 minutes, and got to within 10 (48-38) on Shaner's putback of his own miss with 2:33 to play.
But J.J. Odunsi, who missed the front end of two 1-and-1 chances earlier in the quarter, hit four straight on the Ramblers' next two possessions to push the lead back to 52-38. Puou, Deng and Freddy Okito 5 of 6 free-throw attempts over the next minute, then Puou answered Paulson's 3 with a runout layup with 54.7 seconds left to empty both benches.
"We felt like we left something out there tonight," Paulson said. "Yeah, we got back to the supersectional, but we wanted to play two more games, and it feels like something's missing to end this season."
Paulson led the Cougars with 17 points, 10 rebounds, three steals and two assists, while freshman Brighton Haverland added seven points and six boards. Senior Valdet Seferi's fourth-quarter 3 provided the only other points for Eastland.
"I'm pretty proud of our defense, and this whole team and all my assistant coaches," Dunlap said. "I'm not surprised with how hard we hit the boards, and when we attacked their defense, good things happened.
"We just didn't play our best game today, and that's why this loss has a little more bite to it."
Mooseheart, on the other hand, was walking on air after securing the first trip to the state tournament in the school's 100-year history. Puou finished with 24 points, 17 rebounds and five blocks, and Deng added 15 points and two assists. Odunsi had nine points and six boards, Odunewu added six points, three steals and two assists, and Okito chipped in five points and three assists.
"It broke our hearts when we fell short last year," Ahrens said, of the Ramblers' sectionmal semifinal loss on their home floor, "and this is such an incredible feeling. More than 1 million Moose members have helped to give these kids the opportunity to play basketball, and everyone gets to enjoy the experience of our first [state] trophy."
Class 1A DeKalb Supersectional
Mooseheart 59, Eastland 41
Star of the game: Makur Puou, Mooseheart, 24 points, 17 rebounds, 5 blocks
Key performers: Skylar Paulson, Eastland, 17 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists; Dalton Shaner, Eastland, 14 points, 7 rebounds; Mangisto Deng, Mooseheart, 15 points, 2 assists