Aces ready for challenge in Toyota Classic starting with Gibson Southern
MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- Things haven’t always gone great early on in the season for the Mount Carmel Golden Aces. They’ve struggled to put some games away, they’ve had their share of struggles on the boards, but it appears as if they’ve taken significant steps to remedy these flaws recently, starting with their game against Vincennes Lincoln on Dec. 7.
Despite another narrow loss (six of their losses have been by 10 or less points) to the Alices, it just felt different than some of their previous losses. The Aces fought back from a double digit deficit and had a chance to win the game late -- though it slipped through their fingers. They carried that momentum into a blowout win over Flora, where things just appeared to be clicking. A commonality in the Aces upward trend? The return of sophomore big Kaleb Applebey, who’s provided a much needed big presence. They’re aiming to continue that trend into the Toyota Classic this week.
The annual tournament pits the Aces (2-8) against Indiana foes -- this year, Gibson Southern and Princeton. Mount Carmel head coach Tyler Buss and his team had the benefit of a week break heading into the classic, which they used to work on their team for the majority of the brief break in action. By all accounts, the break went splendidly for the Aces, who enjoyed some tough, hardnosed practices. Preparation for Gibson Southern started on Monday night and it’ll assuredly be a challenging stretch for a team that’s faced some early adversity.
“It’s good to get a couple wins here over the last couple of weeks but more importantly having that little break right after that Flora game where we spent three days just working on ourselves,” coach Buss spoke of the break. “We weren’t working on preparing for anybody else or scouting, this and that. We were just worried about fixing our issues that we needed to fix. It was a tough, physical three days of work. Gave them Saturday and Sunday off to refresh and then practiced today to prepare for Gibson Southern. Really happy with not only the win, but the work we’ve done since that win on Tuesday,”
Their first challenge will be against Gibson Southern on Tuesday night (Dec. 18) at 7:15 p.m. The Titans (1-3) enter the game having only played four games this season and are led by senior forward Dawson Witte and junior guard Aidan Neel. The two teams have one common opponent, Evansville North, who the Titans defeated 44-39. Mount Carmel fell to North 73-63 in their sixth game of the season.
Though the Titans have experienced similar growing pains to the Aces, coach Buss expects a grind it out type game with Gibson Southern’s halfcourt style of play. Defensively, the Aces will have to remain alert, the Titans are likely to try a good deal of backdoor cuts for easy layup opportunities.
“They’re a team that’s a little like us, they have some inexperience, they’re a little banged up as well,” coach Buss spoke of the Titans. “One of their returning guys from last year hasn’t played yet, they’re very well coached, they’re a very good defensive team and really on offense move well without the ball. That’s one thing we’ve talked to our guys about, you’ve got to make sure you’re between your man and the ball because they do a good job of cutting to the basket and getting easy looks that way.”
Subsequently, the Aces will receive a two day break before taking on Princeton on Thursday (Dec. 20) at 5:30 p.m. The Tigers (5-2) enter the game with four scorers in double digits, Zach Dove (13.3 ppg), Matt Dove (13.3 ppg), Stephan Wilkerson (15.7 ppg) and Hunter Carey (11.6 ppg). They have significant size with the Dove brothers, who are both over 6′7. With that kind of size, the Aces will have to rely heavily on Applebey to contain the tandem and keep them off the glass.
“Princeton is probably one of the best teams in the area,” coach Buss spoke of the Tigers. “They’re such a difficult matchup with the Dove brothers inside. They’re 6′9, 6′7, there’s just no way to replicate that in practice or in a preparation type of setting, then they have one of the best guards we’ll see all year in the Wilkerson kid. . . . I’d say they’re definitely the favorite in the tournament and the conference. It’s something I know our kids will be up for that challenge and hopefully we can play well and see what happens.”
One key for the Aces -- what kind of play they receive from their supporting cast outside of seniors Austin Rager, Bret Doan? Applebey has been a nice third scoring option for the Aces and sophomore Beau Stipp has been a revelation lately for the Aces defensively. Who can rise to the occasion beyond that core will be an interesting key to watch.
“Offensively, just continue to find our identity,” coach Buss spoke of his team. “We know what Austin Rager can do, we know what Bret Doan can do, getting Kaleb back to be that third option. At the same time we need some of our complimentary pieces to step in and get some shots to go down.”
As they continue to inch in the right direction, a successful classic could do wonders for the Aces, but it won’t be the end of the world. What ultimately matters is how well they’re playing coming postseason time.
“When things weren’t going well early, we’ve battled to have the chance to win a game, I know this group’s going to fight,” coach Buss said. “I know they want to be good, they know how to be good, we’ve just got to figure some things out. The week of practice we’ve had has just been tremendous. I’ve learned this is a group that’s just going to fight, it’s going to work and it may not be pretty now, but come January or February, this is a team that can still accomplish big things.”
The Aces will play again on Saturday (Dec. 22), but the time and opponent will depend on how they fare against the Titans and Tigers this week. The game will either be at 12:45 p.m., 4:15 p.m., or 7:45 p.m. on Saturday against a foe in Pool B (Ev. Christian, Mount Vernon, North Posey and Wood Memorial) of the tournament.