PEORIA — Ron Ahrens was worried, for good reason.
Bolting to a 19-2 lead over Heyworth in the opening 5:14 of the Class 1A state championship game, the Mooseheart coach’s team had been outscored 25-14 over a 10:46 span. The Red Ramblers’ lead was down to six points, 33-27, at halftime.
“We started turning the ball over a bit and then they hit a couple threes,” Ahrens said.
Things went from bad to worse early in the third quarter. Point guard Freddy Okito took an elbow to the nose trying to defend a Heyworth player on a missed breakaway layup and then took a flyer into a padded table off the end of the court under the basket at Peoria’s Carver Arena.
The Hornets’ Adam Wickenhauser had put back the missed shot to cut the deficit to 33-29 at 6:40.
Okito, meanwhile, was helped to the trainer’s room for treatment of a bloodied nose and to check if he had a concussion.
“Boy, they asked a lot of questions,” said the 5-8 sophomore, anxious to return.
Ahrens’s stomach was soon churning. Much has been written about the Red Ramblers’ three Sudanese players who comprise their towering front line, but Ahrens considers his team’s smallest player its glue.
“I said it from Day 1, we’ll go as far as Freddy Okito can take us,” Ahrens confirmed. “If Freddy Okito can run the point as a sophomore, we’re gonna win state. I was kinda glad to see his nose was bleeding when I went to check on him. I thought it might be a knee or an ankle. When I saw it was the nose, I thought we’ll get him back quickly.”
It took longer than he thought, and Ahrens had an anxious four-plus minutes.
Wickenhauser dropped in a floater from the lane. The Red Ramblers turned the ball over and Heyworth’s Kaleb Marr made a three.
Suddenly, the Hornets led 34-33.
“I’m glad we didn’t panic,” Ahrens said.
“We knew we had to maintain until (Okito) gets back,” junior Hameed Odunewu said.
Credit seniors Mangisto Deng (27 points) and Makur Puou (15).
They combined for six Mooseheart points sandwiched around three straight Red Rambler turnovers that led to a pair of Justin Witten baskets for Heyworth.
It left Mooseheart was clinging to a 40-38 lead when Okito returned with 2:09 remaining.
What happened next was as if the players took a relaxing deep breath and Ahrens discovered a fresh roll of antacid tablets in his pocket.
Mooseheart reeled off 14 straight points to take control.
The highlight of the spurt?
Pesky Okito stealing the ball from the Hornets’ center, who had just grabbed an offensive rebound under the Heyworth basket, dribbling it downcourt and feeding 6-7 Deng for a high-flying dunk.
“I got extremely nervous when we were struggling and all of a sudden Freddy got hurt,” Ahrens said. “We lost a huge lead and came back and won by 16. I’m real thankful, really proud of these guys. They worked their tails off.
“And Freddy is our MVP. Without him, we’re trying to dribble too much and standing around on offense. We were gonna get beat, I’m glad he came back.”