MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- What a difference two months can make.
Just two months ago, Mount Carmel and Lawrenceville faced off in the Capital Classic in Lawrenceville. Mount Carmel, without sophomore big man Kaleb Applebey, fell to the Indians 69-54. It was a nightmare start for Mount Carmel, who began the season 0-6.
But Tuesday night exhibited how much the Aces have improved since that Nov. 24 game, as Mount Carmel pummeled Lawrenceville 67-35 at the Hilltop in a clear statement game.
Mount Carmel recognized senior guard Bret Doan prior to tip-off for his accomplishment of joining the 1,000 point club as an Ace in the Carmi White-County Invitational in their last game. Doan was given a ball and his name will soon be on the wall of the Hilltop, allowing his legacy to live on.
"It's kind of surreal, I'm sure it'll hit me in a later moment," Doan said "There's only so many names on that list and I'm proud to be one of them. It's a relief to get it done, I had a rough couple of games there trying to accomplish it so I'm glad that was over."
The game had shades of the Gibson Southern game early on. Lawrenceville was very methodical with their offensive possessions early on and played an aggressive zone against the Aces defensively. Mount Carmel weathered through with strong minute and a half defensive efforts and some strong inside play gashing the Indians. Applebey scored six points in the first quarter to lead the Aces to a 13-6 lead with 1:41 remaining in the quarter. Lawrenceville closed the half strong with a 5-0 run to end the quarter, trimming the deficit to 13-11 to end the quarter.
Aces senior Austin Rager started the quarter with an offensive rebound and putback to extend their lead and the Aces really never looked back. Rager posted eight points in the frame, including a dunk with 36 seconds remaining in the half and Doan added six points as the Aces extended their lead to 32-19 entering the break.
"I thought we were a little rusty in that first half," Mount Carmel head coach Tyler Buss spoke of the first half. "Shot the ball ok, had some sloppy moments, but that probably had a lot to do with not playing in almost 10 days."
The Aces continued to roll in the third quarter and extended their lead to as high as 20 after a transition layup by sophomore guard Beau Stipp with 1:55 remaining in the quarter. Lawrenceville's style of play really hindered them as they tried to play from behind. The Indians rarely played man-to-man in the game, primarily sticking with their zone despite the tough deficit.
Rager continued to gash the Indians in the fourth quarter with his aggressive inside play and transition game. The senior had an exceptional game, scoring 31 points in a truly impressive performance.
The lead increased to 32 (61-29), allowing the Aces to dig into their reserves and give their starters a rest. Notably, junior Trevor Peterson saw his first action of the season with the Aces up big with under two minutes remaining in the game. Peterson dressed for the first time this season tonight as he rehabbed from a knee injury sustained during football.
At the finish mark, it was a great victory for the Aces, who sent an echoing message to Illinois foes as the postseason approaches. Rager's 31 points led the Aces attack, but he was joined by a couple strong performances as well. Applebey scored 13 points and was strong on the boards, enjoying a distinct size advantage against the Indians. Doan scored nine points in the game, all nine coming in the first half. Lawrenceville's Cale Powell led all Indian scorers with 15 points.
"We didn't know what to expect," coach Buss said. "They've shown a lot of man to man lately and played zone the first time. We just knew if we could get them out of that zone and into the man to man that inside we'd have an advantage there with Austin and Kaleb. I thought those two guys did a good job early there of just rebounding the ball. Even though the shots weren't necessarily going in they were getting attempts. They were getting the ball down there. In the second half Austin just found that second gear that we know he's got. He was pretty special in that second half."
The echoing message sent was very clear -- we're still here.
"That at full strength, I don't know many teams that would want to see us in the regional or sectional," coach Buss said. "There's a lot of good teams in Southern Illinois, a lot of even teams. There's kind of that upper echelon in our sectional complex with Fairfield, Casey-Westfield and T-Town, and rightfully so, they're having great years. But after that in that next mix, I'd be hard pressed to find a team, if we can stay healthy and keep getting better, that has more of a complete package than we do."
Coach Buss offered updates on Mount Carmel's two recent canceled games -- Gibson Southern and Boonville. Coach Buss said the Gibson Southern makeup will likely not happen now due to the winding schedule for both teams and lack of availability. The road game at Boonville though has been moved to Friday with the JV starting the night at 5:30 p.m. If the Aces (10-11) can defeat the Pioneers (1-13), they'll move back to .500 for the first time since the season began.
After traveling to Boonville on Friday, the Aces will travel to Benton to participate in the Benton Basketball Classic. They're slated to face an 18-4 Herrin team at 8:30 p.m. in the nightcap of the event.
"If you have big plans on Saturday, you have all day to get them done and then head on down to Benton," coach Buss said. "Benton's a great place to watch a basketball game. I know it's a little bit of a trip but I enjoy going down there. You see different teams and you see a nice Red River school that's having a great season. Should be a fun day of basketball and we're glad to be apart of it at 8:30. We just hope to be back in time for the Super Bowl on Sunday because it's going to be a late night."
MC -- 13 19 15 20 -- 67
L -- 11 8 10 6 -- 35
Mount Carmel scoring: Rager 15 0 31, Applebey 5 3 13, Doan 3 1 9, Stipp 3 1 7, Plassman 1 2 4, Gould 1 0 3.