OLNEY, Ill. -- You don't want to just take moral victories, but the effort that Mount Carmel showed in their nearly miraculous comeback against Richland County was vastly impressive.
A rough first half and early third quarter set Mount Carmel tremendously back, setting a seemingly mountain of a deficit to overcome to get back into the game.
The Aces climbed over that hurdle with a 24-6 run to end regulation, tying the game at 49-49 and setting the stage for overtime.
Mount Carmel made a handful of winning plays down the stretch, but it slipped away from the Aces late in their 56-54 heartbreaking loss to Richland County High School in Olney in front of an electric crowd.
The aforementioned early struggles set Mount Carmel behind 41-25 with 3:32 remaining in the third quarter. Shortly after, however, the Aces received a wake up call. Some extracurricular shoving by a Tigers (21-4) player on senior Bret Doan earned a technical, sending Doan to the charity stripe and giving the Aces the ball. They failed to convert on the pair of free throws and the possession, but there was just a fire within the Aces after that moment.
"I didn't realize that, but it probably had something to do with it," Mount Carmel head coach Tyler Buss said. I wish it was 31-15, I wish he would have made the free throws. We haven't faired well on technical free throws this year. But again, I think our guys just some confidence going back again. Things did not go well in that first half and even early in the third quarter but once things got going, good things happened."
Doan came alive, knocking down a pair of 3-pointers, including a 28-footer from the top left key with three seconds remaining in the quarter. All of the sudden the lead was down to just 10 as the fourth quarter neared.
That fiery momentum continued into the fourth. Doan slashed through the lane and laid it up and in through contact, and senior Luke Gould knocked down a trey from the corner on a nice feed from sophomore Kaleb Applebey to bring the Aces within five (43-38).
Olney answered with a dagger and-one to gash the Aces' hopes with 5:36 left, expanding the lead to 46-38. It felt like a dagger, but the Aces just continued to fight.
Applebey left his impact on the game late, scoring a tough layup and-one off a post feed by senior Austin Rager, followed by a steal by the sophomore big, who outletted it ahead to sophomore Beau Stipp for a transition layup, reducing the lead to just 46-43 with 4:11 left. At the time the Aces were officially on an 18-3 run.
The uphill fight continued and they continued to overcome adversity and make plays. Rager laid in a wide open layup, but Applebey was called for a charge call on the ensuing play with the Aces looking to get the margin to one. To Applebey's credit though, he didn't duck his head, he moved on and scored a nice post spin and hook to bring the Aces closer at 48-47 with 1:56 to go.
It was clear Olney was content to dribble it out so the Aces were forced to foul with 34 seconds remaining after failing to force a turnover. The Tigers knocked down one of the two free throws, giving them a 49-47 lead with time dwindling.
Rager, much as he's done throughout the year, came up with a clutch layup through contact on an inbounds play with 13 seconds remaining to tie the game at 49 all. Olney had a couple shots at the end but they were tough, off balance looks. On to overtime.
The crowd was raucous, but the vibe felt as if the Aces had all the momentum entering overtime in the nail-biter game. Applebey made a couple more strong post moves in overtime to put the Aces ahead 54-51 with 1:40 remaining in overtime, but the Aces surely wish they could get the remaining 1:40 back.
Olney ended the game on a 5-0 run, highlighted by a clutch corner 3-pointer by Braden Flanagan with 12.9 seconds remaining. The Aces had a chance to extend their lead at 54-53, but Stipp missed the front end of the one and one, setting the stage for Flanagan. Mount Carmel had one last shot and turned to Rager. They fed Rager the ball in the post, he went for a spin and finish through contact over the top -- but it rimmed off. Olney got the rebound and that was it. A heartbreaker for Mount Carmel in a nearly miraculous comeback victory.
"I love the way they battled, I love the way they got down and didn't quit, I love the way they executed their late game stuff," coach Buss said. "We did everything but win. We told them the lesson is, especially in the postseason, you can't come out and play as sloppy in the first half as we did. I thought the ball was wet or something, it was just going everywhere. Against good teams you just can't do that."
Doan led the Aces scoring charge with 17 points, followed by Applebey's 16 points and exceptionally strong night. Rager added 14 points for the Aces, seven of which came in the first quarter. Flanagan led the Tigers with 16 points and hit what would be the game-winner for the Tigers.
Applebey's play is a welcome sight for the Aces. You could see the Mount Carmel coaches trying to encourage Applebey to use his frame and attack the Tigers in the post. He did just that in the second half, using some nice post moves and a smooth hook shot. If he plays at that level, he makes Mount Carmel a tremendously tough out.
"He's our wild card," coach Buss spoke of Applebey. "We know what we get out of Austin, Bret when he shoots the ball, if Kaleb Applebey will play with that motor and style of play -- he's going to go score. Even early I thought he was a little too passive kicking that thing back out. Go after those big boys and he did a good job of that in the second half. He wanted the ball in there, our guys did a better job in that second half of feeding him."
Mount Carmel (12-14) is now down to their final game of the regular season, a Senior Night date with Washington on Friday (Feb. 15). The Hatchets (14-6) figure to be a tough game for the Aces in their final Big Eight game of the year, giving the Aces a nice challenge prior to hosting the regional starting next week. Coach Buss hopes Aces fans will turn out and provide a big crowd for the seniors in their final home game.
"Senior Night [coming up]," coach Buss said. "Let's get that same crowd we had for Jasper and send these seniors out right. They've won a heck of a lot of ballgames over the last four years and we need a good crowd to kind of get a warmup into the regional."
Tip-off on Friday for the JV team is slated for 5:30 p.m. at Mount Carmel High School. Senior Night festivities will follow the JV game, with the varsity game ending the night likely around 7 p.m.
MC -- 9 12 12 16 5 -- 54
RC -- 17 12 14 6 7 -- 56
Mount Carmel scoring: Doan 7 0 17, Applebey 7 2 16, Rager 6 4 14, Stipp 1 2 4, Gould 1 0 3.