Willis 'cautiously optimistic' heading into Girls Regional Tournament

Mount Carmel sophomore guard races it up against Edwards County in their first meeting of the season on Dec. 6. Smith and the Lady Aces could face Edwards County once again, if they defeat Flora on Wednesday.

ALBION, Ill. -- It's been a season of highs and lows for Mount Carmel girls basketball. The Lady Aces began the year on a hot 8-1 start. Then hit a tough stretch, dropping seven games in a row. They've leveled out a bit since then, offering a glimpse of promise for postseason play as it begins.

Mount Carmel (13-14) ended their season on Saturday on the road at Eldorado, defeating the Lady Eagles 72-64 in an impressive victory.

Now, they'll turn their attention to the IHSA Class 2A Edwards County Girls Regional. The Lady Lions earned the luxury of hosting the regional with their tremendous success this season, finishing their season 22-4.

As the hosts, Edwards County will face the winner of Game 1, featuring sixth seeded Lawrenceville and eight seeded Bridgeport. The Lady Lions defeated Lawrenceville both times they played this year and appear to be the favorite to advance to the regional championship.

For Mount Carmel and head coach Tim Willis, he says he's cautiously optimistic entering the week. Citing it just comes down to what team has a better night in the one game elimination setting.

"Yeah, I think we're cautiously optimistic," coach Willis said. "It comes down to who plays well that night. I just got done talking to the kids, who can take care of the basketball and knock down free throws generally wins a regional game when you have two teams that are generally, talent wise the same."

On the other side of the bracket, Mount Carmel sits as the three seed and will play fifth seeded Flora on the second night of the tournament. The Lady Aces faced Flora earlier this season and defeated the Lady Eagles 68-45. No game in the postseason is a cake walk and coach Willis expects no less from Flora. The game is set for Wednesday (Feb. 6) at Edwards County at 7:30 p.m.

"They've improved quite a bit, we've scouted them several times in the past couple weeks," coach Willis said. "They're going to be ready to play, they're playing better so if we don't play a good game we're not going to beat them, but if we do, hopefully we'll get by them and get ready. We have to shut their guards down, if we do that we'll be ok, if not it'll be a struggle all night long."

Flora enters the game having lost six of their last eight games, but feature a trio of senior guards who could present problems for Mount Carmel if they're not addressed. Fortunately for coach Willis, he has a typically pretty stout defensive unit.

Mount Carmel boasts a significant size advantage over Flora that they used last game and will likely attack the paint once again, similarly to the first game. Expect big games from seniors Mollie Dardeen, Meredith Jones, Sela Lashbrook and sophomore Madi Smith if the Lady Aces are to be victorious.

The victors of the Mount Carmel-Flora game and Edwards County-TBA game will advance to play in the championship of the tournament on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Edwards County.

Coach Willis' team fell to Edwards County 56-37 in their first meeting of the season. Edwards County barrelled past the Lady Aces with an explosive third quarter run to create the necessary separation. He hopes if they're able to play this time that the result can be different.

"They do a lot of similar things to Flora, there's a lot of dribble handoffs, a lot of guard oriented play. . . .," coach Willis spoke of the Lady Lions. "We've decided how we're going to do it, but I'm not going to tell you right now. We certainly have a defensive strategy of how we want to play Edwards County, it'll be a little different than Flora. But from an offensive standpoint both teams are relatively the same, Edwards County just has more talent than Flora has at this point. It's going to help us in our preparation. We've been preparing for both of these teams for the last couple weeks, but you can prepare for two years, you still have to execute. At times we do that really well, at times we struggle a little bit."

Mount Carmel did however just defeat an Eldorado team that handed Edwards County one of their few losses of the season -- a positive sign for the Lady Aces.

If they're able to face the Lady Lions, sophomores Rylie Webb, Maya Smith and junior Kassidy Drone will need to have solid all around games. They'll have the tough assignment against the Edwards County guards. If they're able to contain them, Mount Carmel would have a shot.

Coach Willis utilizes his bench a great deal as part of his gameplan, extending to as many as 11 players he's willing to play on a nightly basis. That capable amount of contributing depth can create a distinct advantage for Mount Carmel in a tournament setting.

"I think the advantage we have going into region, if there is one, is playing on back to back days," coach Willis said. "With our depth that we've used all season long, that'll be beneficial in the second day. Edwards County basically plays five kids. I've literally been at games where they play five kids. To do that on back to back nights with that pressure can be tough. If we get them in foul trouble that'll be the key for the game on Thursday night if we get there, we need to beat Flora [first]."

If the regional doesn't go as planned, however, he's still pleased with the overall effort that the ladies have given this year. They replaced a lot of pieces from an 18-13 team last year and did so in seamless fashion. Mount Carmel ended their regular season with a solid 13-14 record despite a plethora of inexperience from contributors. All in all, the future is bright for Mount Carmel girls basketball.

"We've got a bright future," coach Willis said. "What I liked about a lot of times when we come back from a regional championship, if you look back on the runs we've had, generally the year after that you drop down, we've had nine, 10, 11 wins. This season we already have 13. That says a lot about what Meredith, Sela and Mollie have been able to do for us, along with our junior class. We certainly think we're going to be pretty good next year and year after but we want it this year. We'll worry about next year come next year, for our seniors we want to win another for them so they can go out with two in a row."

IHSA Class 2A Edwards County Girls Regional Schedule:

Game 1: Monday, Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. -- Lawrenceville vs. Bridgeport (Red Hill)

Game 2: Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 6 p.m. -- Albion (Edwards County) vs. the winner of Game 1

Game 3: Wednesday, Feb. 6 at 7:30 p.m. -- Mount Carmel vs. Flora

Game 4: Thursday, Feb. 7 at 7 p.m. -- Winner of Game 2 vs. the winner of Game 3

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