Aces one game away from fourth consecutive Boys Basketball Regional Championship

February 20, 2019

MOUNT CARMEL -- The Aces are on the brink of history. Mount Carmel hasn’t won four consecutive Regional Boys Basketball Championships since the 1940s. Now, this year’s edition of the Aces sit just one victory away from pulling off the feat.

Mount Carmel head coach Tyler Buss has echoed a singular message to his team -- one step at a time. Don’t look ahead, give each game presented in front of you your all. The Aces did just that tonight.

It wasn’t a pretty start for Mount Carmel, but they found themselves and ran by Flora 73-54 on Tuesday night at the Hilltop.

The aforementioned sloppy start reared its ugly face in the early going of the first quarter. It seemed as if the Aces may have had some postseason jitters. They looked uncharacteristically sloppy on both ends. Some defensive breakdowns, stagnant ball movement and turnovers offensively by the Aces allowed the Wolves (7-24) to stay within striking distance.

Coach Buss called a timeout to settle his team and it seemed to do the trick. Senior Bret Doan ended the quarter with a pair of 3-pointers, including a deep 25-foot 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer to give Mount Carmel an 11-8 lead.

“We were just too easy to guard for a long stretch of that game,” coach Buss said. “Depending on who we play, I’d say there’s a chance we’ll see some zone on Friday regardless. We’ll have to sure that up, continue to make some tweaks. Our quick hitters were good but our continuity zone offense was not very good tonight.”

Flora once again stayed within striking distance in the second quarter, but a nice finish over a Flora defender by sophomore Kaleb Applebey and a senior Luke Gould corner 3-pointer allowed the Aces to push the lead to 30-18 with under a minute remaining in the half. Mount Carmel entered the half with a 30-19 lead and started to shake some of their jitters.

It was a complete team effort in the second half, with the Aces starting five playing collectively well and the ball movement vastly improved as the Aces upped their pace, pushing it in transition more often.

Aces senior Austin Rager was contained to just three first half points, but he took over in the second half. Applebey and sophomore Beau Stipp made strong contributions on both ends in the quarter, but Rager took over and lit a fire in the Aces.

“He did,” coach Buss spoke of Rager. “When we’re playing with better pace, it’s right up his alley. He did a better job there of being active on defense, getting some leak outs there and getting some easy buckets. Obviously got pretty excited there on the dunk, but he is. We’re going to need him to play big the rest of the way. He’s the guy now and he can’t have any off nights on either end of the floor for us to beat anyone going forward.”

The 6-foot-3 senior pushed the ball in transition with 44 seconds remaining in the quarter. A Flora defender tried to slide in and prevent Rager’s rim attack, but to no avail. Rager threw down an absolutely electric poster dunk over a Wolves defender plus the foul. It sent the crowd and the Aces crowd into a frenzy, all others were left in awe. The dunk plus the ensuing free throw pushed the Aces to a 49-35 lead as the end of the third quarter neared.

“That Rager dunk was real nice,” Applebey said. “That got us going, that’s what started it all. That got us fired up and we started going after that.”

The deficit was reduced down to 51-39 as the fourth quarter began, but Rager responded, scoring seven of the next nine points for the Aces as the lead inflated to 60-42.

With their season on the line Flora was pressuring the ball and desperately trying to force a turnover after reducing the deficit down to 15, but the Wolves took another dagger. Applebey scored seven straight points on some nice post finishes to put the finishing touches on an Aces victory.

“We needed that out of Kaleb,” coach Buss spoke of Applebey. “He was a little stagnant in the first half on both ends of the floor. I thought we needed him to get down and move a little bit. He was in kind of a tough position because the guy he’s guarding, he’s supposed to be a great helper and play off, but sometimes you get playing that way and get stuck in the mud. We challenged him to get up and get an at least get a count on his guy and use his length and size he has to bother them. He did a better job of that.”

Rager finished his night with a game-high 21 points, 18 of which came in the first half. Applebey continued his strong play of late with 17 points, Stipp added 14, Doan scored 11 and Gould chipped in eight to round out the Aces scoring. Coach Buss was happy to see the collective performance from his starting five.

“Even some of our young guys tonight, I loved the way Beau Stipp played tonight,” coach Buss said. “He had a stretch there in the first half where he was really attacking the basket, getting into the teeth of the defense, collapsing it and either passing it out or finishing at the rim and getting to the free throw line. He was great tonight, Luke Gould knocked down some open shots, we’ve talked about when he’s knocking down shots like he can it changes how teams guard us. Good job by him as well.”

One number in the box score that coach Buss assuredly will like is the Aces free throw shooting. Mount Carmel has struggled from the charity stripe as of late, but finished 71 percent from the line tonight, or 15 of 21.

Mount Carmel (13-15) advanced to the Regional Championship with the victory and will face the winner of Red Hill and Lawrenceville on Friday night at the Hilltop. The Aces lost to Red Hill (21-9) 51-46 on the opening night of the season back in late November, a stretch that ushered in an 0-6 start for the Aces. Though they’re a vastly different team, they could pose a challenge to the Aces if they get by Lawrenceville (14-14).

Coach Buss is calling for Aces fans and students to come out in full force on Friday night as they play for yet another Regional Championship. There’ll be a lot of excitement in the air and the Aces will hoping to accomplish history.

“Should be fun, not very often you get to play in a Regional Championship in your gym,” coach Buss said. “Good crowd tonight but we need a great one on Friday. We need to get the fire chief up here to send people home, that’s the way it needs to be. It needs to be loud, I’m going to have a little chat with the students tomorrow. We need to get after it and get this place rocking. We’ve got to do our part to get some excitement in the gym and it should be a lot of fun on Friday night.”

“I just can’t believe we’re going to back-to-back Regional Championships, it’s awesome,” Applebey said. “I just can’t wait. I hope we can get the win and go on to sectionals.”

Tip-off for the game on Friday is slated for 7 p.m.

MC -- 11 19 21 22 -- 73

F -- 8 11 20 15 -- 54

Mount Carmel scoring: Rager 7 7 21, Applebey 7 3 17, Stipp 6 1 14, Doan 3 2 11, Gould 2 2 8.