BOYS BASKETBALL: Momence loses steam, ends season in regionals
MOMENCE — One of the hardest things to do in basketball is play back-to-back games and have that same energy as the night before.
24 hours later, fresh off a 72-44 victory over Herscher, Momence attempted to regroup and pull off the upset.
Momence found that energy for about 11 gametime minutes, but couldn’t maintain its momentum and saw its season come to a close with a 67-44 defeat at the hands of top-seeded El Paso Gridley in a Class 2A Momence regional on Tuesday.
“From being down double digits to start the game and to take a lead going into the half, our kids showed a lot of heart,” Momence coach Kevin Ecker said. “We just ran out of gas.”
Struggle is real
It wasn’t as if the energy wasn’t there from the beginning, but it’s hard to maintain if shots aren’t being made.
While El Paso Gridley attacked with a series of passes before taking a shot, Momence attacked downhill in hopes of getting fouled for free throws.
All it led to was it trailing 7-0 out of the gates. Things got worse after the Titans snagged four offensive rebounds on one possession before getting fouled a drilling both free throws for an 11-0 lead.
Momence began the game 0-of-12 from the floor.
“Fatigue set in a little bit early with us,” Ecker said. “But at the same point, you have to give El Paso Gridley credit. They’re a good team, they understand what they want to do and they’re very effective at doing it.”
Finding a rhythm
Momence continued to plug away and finally got its first basket on an and-1 from Jasper Jones with 2:16 left in the first.
Seeing the ball go in was all Momence needed and it took off.
Clifton Johnson breathed new life into his team with his defensive intensity that resulted in a pair of steals that both resulted in buckets from himself and Kobey Mazur.
Add Lamarius Lillard burying a 3-pointer and two free throws from Johnson and it equals to a 12-2 run to end the quarter trailing 13-12.
“Clifton made a ton of good plays defensively,” Ecker said. “And that in turn allowed his offensive game to take off. He gave us the spark we needed and he’s done that most of the year.”
Now that Momence seemed to wake up, it was really time to play some basketball.
With Johnson spearheading the charge, Momence kept pace with every shot that El Paso Gridley made.
Whether it was 3-pointer from Jalen Williams or a jumper from Johnson, it hung right with Titans until it was time to make their move.
Johnson came up with his fourth steal of the half and found a streaking Lillard who finished it off with a one-handed throwdown jam, plus the foul. He made the free throw that gave Momence its first lead 25-24 before a Johnson lay-in put it ahead 27-24 at the half.
“We got in the passing lines and we’re the type of team that one turnover leads to two and so on,” Ecker said. “It snowballed for us positively and we had all momentum at halftime.”
Dominating the inside
While most teams look at halftime as a time to relax and adjust their gameplan, halftime was the worst thing to happen to Momence.
Already with Monday’s game and the first half on their tired legs, having to sit down for 10 minutes and then get back up to finish the game proved to be too much of a tall task.
El Paso Gridley noticed right away and attacked the paint using its 6-foot-6 forward Jack Weber.
He wasted no time as he scored six points and led the Titans on a 13-2 run to open the third and retake the lead 37-29.
Weber later capped a 25-8 Titan third with a one-handed flush through traffic that ultimately put the finishing touches on Momence’s season.
“He’s really tough to guard,” Ecker said. “You can’t isolate just one guy to guard him, it takes 2-3 guys and (El Paso Gridley) was able to expose some of our area where we struggled this season.”
Considering Momence brought back three of its five starters back this season and five of its top eight players from last year, this wasn’t quite the season it hoped for.
It was snake bitten with injuries at critical parts of the season which led to some tough losses and putting them behind the eight ball.
But there were some bright spots such as Lillard becoming Momence’s all-time career leading scorer and a major victory over St. Anne according to Ecker.
And now the road has end for five seniors (four starters): Lillard, Johnson, Mazur, Williams and Devin Vent.
They’ll graduate leaving a historic mark in Momence history, including tying the record for most single-season wins last season with 24 and its first regional title since the 2004-05 season according to the IHSA website.
“This class, along with last year’s class, gave Momence an identity,” Ecker said. “We were struggling to find one and now everyone knows who we are and what we like to do. They helped us reach a level that we hadn’t been at for a while and I’m proud of the young men that they’ve become over the past four years.”