Panthers one game away from state tourney
The Mount Pleasant boys’ basketball team put the first 13 points on the board as the Panther defense shut down Williamsburg in a big Class 3A District 9 championship win on Friday night.
The Panthers defeated the Raiders, 47-26, to advance to the substate game against Solon.
That game is scheduled for 7 p.m. tonight at Iowa City West, with the winner advancing to the state tournament.
On Friday night, the Panthers opened their district game with an alley-oop dunk by Faith Pope, assisted by Cameron Frank, on their first possession.
“We came out with a lot of energy,” Mount Pleasant Coach Paul Rundquist said.
Pope then blocked a shot attempt by Williamsburg’s Matt Heitmann on the other side of the court before making a putback and sinking a 3-pointer — his first of three on the night — to give the Panthers a 7-0 lead.
Frank put in a jumper and a free throw, and Conner Shull drilled a long 3-pointer to cap the Panthers 13-point, game-opening run.
“It’s huge to take that early lead,” Rundquist said. “We haven’t had the greatest starts this season, but I think coming out and seeing the fans that were here really helped.”
The Mount Pleasant side of the gym was packed with Panther fans, and the student section reached all the way back to the wall of the Fairfield gym.
The Panthers didn’t lose any ground in the second quarter, as the Raiders never got closer than seven points in the game.
Frank had a steal in the last few seconds of the half, leading to a putback by Trey Magnani that put the Panthers up, 27-12, at the break.
Heitmann, the Raiders’ 6-foot-9 center, scored nine of Williamsburg’s first 12 points.
He slowed down in the second half, scoring only four more points, and all four came in the first three minutes of the third quarter.
Mount Pleasant also limited his second-chance points, as he had only one putback on the night.
Pope stayed on Heitmann throughout the game, and all of the Panthers played their classic Mount Pleasant defense.
The Raiders’ center finished with 13 points — just slightly under his season average (15.7 points per game), and half of the team’s total.
No other Raider had more than five points.
“Defense always is our strongest point,” Frank said. “Communicating is key, and so is pressure. We ... put pressure on the basketball. We didn’t want to allow them to pass it around the perimeter.”
The Panthers did not focus their pressure on Heitmann, as many other teams had done this season.
“We noticed [as we were watching tape] that people put so much energy on trying to stop Heitmann that the guards were wide open,” Rundquist said. “We just realized that he [Heitmann] would get his points, and we focused on the others. We put a lot of pressure on the ball.”
That pressure also halted many of the guards’ attempts to get the ball in to Heitmann.
On offense, Mount Pleasant took advantage of the Raiders’ zone, patiently waiting for an open look.
“We knew that if we moved the ball side-to-side, shots would come,” Frank said.
The Panthers took only 33 shots on the night, making 18 of them — including five 3-pointers.
Pope led the team with 20 points on seven-for-nine shooting, including three-for-four from beyond the arc. He went three-for-five from the free throw line.
Pope also had a team-high seven rebounds and seven blocked shots.
Frank scored nine points for the Panthers and dished a team-high four assists.
“He’s hard to guard — he’s very heady,” Rundquist said of Frank. “You’ve got to have those kind of players at point guard. He was our wing last year and we moved him over, and I’ve been very happy with that.”
Frank and Ryan Hanna each pulled down four boards. Hanna also had a block.
Dalton Conrad led the team with three steals. On the night, the Panthers had 12 thefts.
Next up for Mount Pleasant, which is now 18-5 on the season, is the Substate 5 game against Solon.
The Panthers had a little practice time this weekend to prepare, but it’s a tough opponent that they’ll see on the court tonight.
A few of the players, however, will be familiar to the Panthers.
“We play AAU ball with them,” Frank said. “We know they have two good posts and quick guards.
“We’ve got to win in transition,” he added. “They have a strong 1-3-1 full-court defense — we’ve got to find the weakness in their zone.”
The Panthers know that won’t be an easy task.
“We don’t have a lot prep time, and what they do defensively is hard to simulate,” Rundquist said. “We’re just going to have to play our style and hope that’s good enough.”
Both teams are coming off a short break, as Solon (19-4) defeated Keokuk, 49-30, on Friday night in Washington.
“We’ll stay focused; we’ll take time outs to keep players sharp if we need to,” Rundquist said. “We played eight or nine guys on Friday; we’ll do the same tonight.”
However, Solon also has the luxury of playing a talented bench.
Tonight, the Spartans will likely be starting 5-foot-11 sophomore Emilio Villagrana, 5-foot-11 senior Rory Siddell, 6-foot-3 junior Ethan Ahern, 6-foot-5 senior Joe Weeks and 6-foot-7 senior Ryan Kunkel.
Weeks averages 12.1 points per game, and Kunkel averages 9.7. Both pull down an average of 6.9 rebounds per game.
On Friday against Keokuk, however, it was senior Austin M. Miller who led the team in scoring; he came off the bench to put up 15 points.
“They’re all real solid,” Rundquist said. “They’re long — they bring kids off the bench who are 6-foot-5, 6-foot-6. They’re tall, aggressive and athletic.”
Tipoff for tonight’s matchup is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Iowa City West.