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Serena, Mar. 5 – Playing strong basketball on both ends of the court, Mooseheart stormed to an early lead on Chicago Hope Academy in Wednesday's semifinal play in the Class 1A Serena Sectional.
Then midway through the third quarter, on the heels of a pair of monster Makur Puou dunks, the Ramblers' lead – which reached 22 points at one point – began to ebb. Before the game's end, the margin was cut to just 3 points, and Mooseheart's playoff existence was put in doubt for the second consecutive game.
But the Ramblers found just enough offense, just enough defense and Hope missed just enough shots down the stretch to allow Mooseheart to emerge with a 65-59 victory. The win moves the Ramblers to Saturday's sectional title game against Chicagoland Jewish. Tipoff is 8 p.m.
"You know what?" Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens asked rhetorically. "When we were up 22, our guys started celebrating. They thought the game was over. Then we started playing lackadaisical defense and got called for some fouls. That's our fault."
In fact, three Ramblers fouled out – Puou, Mangisto Deng and Akim Nyang. Together, the South Sudanese trio accounted for two-thirds of Mooseheart's points. Deng led all scorers with 29 points but did not score in the fourth quarter. Puou added 14 points while Nuyang scored 2 points.
Mooseheart only scored one basket in the fourth quarter – a Peter Kurowski driving baseline layup. Hope put the Ramblers on the line repeatedly, and the tactic nearly paid off for the Eagles as Mooseheart went 10-for-24 free throwing in that fourth quarter.
"We were getting 1-for-2, which is always better than 0-for-2," Ahrens said. "But hey, I'm over there sick to my stomach watching us shoot free throws. When you shoot free throws like that, you're lucky to get out with a win."
Early in the game, there seemed to be no thought of a close game of a nailbiting finish. The Ramblers jumped to a lead on poor-shooting Hope. After the first quarter, the lead was 22-6. The Eagles cut the lead to 8 points in the second quarter, but the Ramblers regained momentum before halftime and led 36-18 at the intermission.
The surge continued early in the second half, before Hope rallied. The Eagles cut the deficit to single-digits at 57-48 with 4:44 to play. The lead dwindled to 62-59, but the Ramblers survived.
"It was a great start and it was a great third quarter," Ahrens said. "We came out and I thought we were going to put them away in the third quarter. Then we started celebrating and didn't hustle back on defense."
Though he missed a number of free throws, Freddie Okito's 6-10 free throw performance helped Mooseheart preserve the victory.
Carson Hughes led Hope with 19 points. Ricky Calvin added 17 for the Eagles.
Chicagoland Jewish is the team that knocked Mooseheart from the tournament in the sectional semifinals in the 2012-13 season. The winner of Saturday's game advances to Tuesday's NIU Supersectional.