As boys basketball heads into its postseason this week, the mantra of ‘one game at a time’ and ‘survive and advance’ kicks in. While a win or go home condition provides a certain pressure for everyone, it gives Monticello a chance to push the reset button. <!–more–>
At one point, the Sages were ranked first in the News-Gazette area, dominating teams with a suffocating defense early in the season. That early stretch included a 59-32 victory over Bismarck-Henning, a team that went 21-4. The Sages held B-H to just 32 percent shooting and forced 17 turnovers.
After going 8-8 over the final 16 games of the season, Monticello enters the regional this week with a 15-8 record, but still has as talented of a roster as the program has had in several years.
Led by sharpshooter Zach Fisher (21.8 ppg.), the Sages have a player that can take over a game. His running mate, Noah Freemon (9.7 ppg, 82 assists), is also capable of being an offensive threat and provides an engine that gets his teammates going.
“I certainly appreciate the energy that Zach and Noah can bring offensively,” head coach Kevin Roy said. “ Zach has been one of the best pure shooters that I have had and Noah one of the best point guards I have had come through the program. For them to come through at the same time is pretty special.”
The Sages also have an inside game with starters Brandon Wildman and Isiah Florey that can finish around the rim when opponents overplay the two outside scoring threats. Monticello has depth. Senior Tyus Welter and lanky sophomore Calvin Fisher are able to spell Freemon, Fisher and fellow starter Sutten Winterbottom, and knock down big shots. Sophomore reserve Luke Stokowski has proven to be a formidable force inside as well The team has chemistry. The heart of the team has played together for eight years and is tight off the court.
Monticello’s high energy, skilled team is fun to watch and capable of beating any of the top teams on a given night. They have captured the imagination of fans that have streamed back to Miller Gym to watch this version of the Sages compete.
“I think we realized over the summer just the potential we could have this year,” Winterbottom said. “Playing in Monticello has been a pleasure. We have great fans that are important to us.”
“This team is very basketball savvy,” Roy said. “They are a good group of kids. When they play unselfish and play good team defense, they have good chemistry. “
There were other signs of just how strong the 2015-16 Sages team could be.
“When you get classes that stick together and work together for four years, and have good leadership, it is usually a special year.” Roy added. “Academically, when you’re handing out awards for having a 3.5 (GPA) or above above, those have usually translated into successful teams because they have good IQs on and off the court.”
While the Sages have proven they can compete with anyone, the season has also been characterized with some close losses. A last second-tip in meant a one-point loss to St. Thomas More at home. They saw a strong shooting Ridgeview team be simply unconscious from way beyond the arc in the Holiday Hoopla championship game. They missed free throws down the stretch in a one-point setback at PBL Finally, they had a would-be three-pointer which would have tied the game, fall off in a hostile environment at eventual conference champion Rantoul.
As those losses piled up and marred what could have been an even more special year, the team understandably lost a bit of its swagger.
“I still don’t think we still realize how good we are,” Winterbottom said. “We aren’t playing with as with much confidence as we should.”
“The loss at Rantoul took the air out of our sails as far as competing for the conference championship and we kind of went on cruise control,” Roy admitted. “We can still do something great, but we have to play together.”
That frustration came to a head last Friday in a 79-61 loss to St. Joseph-Ogden on the Spartans’ senior night. That was the first game in which Monticello was never in the game. The SJO victory avenged a 62-59 Sages win on Feb. 2 at Miller Gym.
Now the focus is entirely on the postseason. The sectional complex is headlined by an undefeated Warrensburg-Latham team, which defeated Monticello, 56-54, at the Bird Cage on Jan. 26. The loaded St. Joseph sectional also includes the likes of Bloomington Central Catholic, Paxton-Buckley-Loda, St. Thomas More, SJO, and Bismarck-Henning not to mention traditional powers St. Teresa and Meridian whom the Sages could meet in the Argenta Regional.
“We feel like we have had the ability to be really strong all season long,” Roy said. “The key has been consistency. We need to find someone that can be that consistent second or third scorer. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the same guy every night.”
“We have to come out stronger in games,” Freemon added. “Then at the end of games, we just need to focus on getting stops.”
“We need to share the ball, play defense, hustle and make our free throws,” Winterbottom said of the key in the postseason.
“With those close games, we have not responded real well,” Roy added. “We have to get back to being a team, block out distractions and focus on playing for each other on both ends of the floor.”
Despite stumbling down the stretch, Monticello will not be an easy out for the best of teams in the state tournament series, but the Sages need to get back to playing with the way it played in winning its first seven games of the season.
That road begins Tuesday night in Argenta.
“We knew we could be good this year with this group of guys,” Freemon concluded. “Over the last couple of weeks, we’ve been looking forward to the Regional and Sectional. Now that it’s here, we intend to make the most of it.”