By Mike Monahan

MOUNT ZION – Mattoon, coming off a huge 35-32 win at home against Lincoln, didn’t show any signs of a letdown until the fourth quarter – and Mount Zion’s full-court press had something to do with that Friday. 

When Mattoon took its largest lead of the game on a 3-pointer by Malik Carter-Smith with 5 minutes, 49 seconds left for a 52-36 lead, it appeared the Green Wave had the game in hand. 

But Mount Zion, who dropped to 1-11 overall and 1-10 in the Apollo, went on an 11-2 run that made it 54-47 with 2:19 left. A pair of free throws by Cam’Ron Thomas a minute later put Mattoon ahead 58-48 with 1:20 left.

Mount Zion outscored the Green Wave 10-3 the rest of the way. Free throws by Thomas, Pierce Farmer and Cooper Bergstrom proved decisive when Mount Zion’s 3-point attempt at the buzzer hit the back of the rim and went awry, giving Mattoon a 61-58 victory. 

“We just shoot ourselves in the foot down the stretch,” said Mattoon coach Ryan Ghere. “That is three games in a row where, if we take care of the basketball and lead, we can win going away, but right now we just don’t have that guy that wants the ball in his hands at the end of a game. That is what we just talked about in the locker room. You go into the locker room and you would have thought we lost, but we won and it was our fourth straight and we are right near the top in the Apollo Conference. We found a way, but it wasn’t pretty.”

Mattoon is now tied with the second fewest losses in the Apollo. First-place Effingham handed Lincoln its fourth loss, 45-41, and second-place Mahomet routed Taylorville, 63-39, to improve to 7-3, a half-game ahead of Mattoon (6-3).

Mattoon started the fourth quarter off with a basket by Jaylen Middleton, eventually leading 49-36 when Carter-Smith made one of two free throws for the 16-point lead. 

The Braves trailed by 10 when they used a 7-0 run to make it a one possession game.

The Green Wave led 60-55 when Jack Driscoll made a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left. Mattoon’s Bergstrom made one free throw to account for the final points. 

Mattoon, which finished with 15 turnovers, had eight in the fourth quarter. 

“This game scared me because it is one of those trap games,” said Ghere. “Down the stretch, we just didn’t handle the ball very well. That is when the good players get their points in the last two minutes when you string together six or eight free throws, then all the sudden you go from a 12-point lead to a 20-point lead. That is where you should want the ball in that hand and we have to find that guy.”

Mattoon was 10-of-17  (.588) from the free-throw line in the final 5 minutes, 25 seconds and finished 15-of-26 (.577). The Green wave dominated the boards, taking a 41-29 advantage.

“We have lapses and it has been a problem all year long,” said Mount Zion coach Dale Schuring. “We had rebounding problems and we talked about that multiple times tonight. When we don’t rebound, we can’t do what we want to effectively. That was a big part of the problem in the third quarter as well.”

Schuring was happy with the comeback and the execution of the final play of the game. 

“You can’t ask for much more than what we got at the end,” Schuring said. “Great comeback. And we executed a press that we have not practiced once this year. The kids did it all on instinct and aggressiveness and did it all on some nice plays. We executed the last play well. It is just that we missed the shot. We got a good shot and that is all you can ask for. Very pleased with the way we came back. We need to be more consistent in our play so we are not in those situations.” 

Mount Zion was 2-for-12 (167) from 3-point range, while Mattoon sank 10-of-24 (.417). 

Bergstrom was one of two players scoring in double digits 16, six fewer than Thomas’ 22. 

“He (Bergstrom) had knocked down big shots all year,” said Ghere. “When we need a bucket to stop a run, he has gotten it and he did that again today. I think he leads the team in 3-point percentage. He is knocking down the shots when he gets them. We probably need to get him a few more open looks.”

Sophomore Blaine Powers saw a good amount of playing time. 

“ I thought Blaine Powers came in and gave us great minutes,” said Ghere. “He did what he was supposed to do and he took care of the basketball and I thought he calmed us down a little bit. We went seven guys instead of six. I thought he handled himself really well out there for not having a lot of varsity minutes this year.”

Junior Ethan Hamrick led the Braves with 15 points, while classmate Mathias Adams had 11. 

“Mount Zion is well coached,” said Ghere. “I think they play as good of man-to-man defense as any team in the conference. They get after it and he does a great job of teaching man defense. They are undermanned and undersized a little bit, but they fight and scrap and never give up.”

Mattoon travels to Mahomet today for an Apollo Conference at 5 p.m. The Green Wave topped Mahomet 69-58 on Jan. 15. 

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MATTOON: Bergstrom 5-0-0-16, Thomas 6-6-9-22, Carter-Smith 2-3-4-8, Middleton 2-2-6-6, Powers 0-0-0–0, Farmer 1-1-2-4, Bradbury 1-3-5-5, Totals 17-15-26-61.

MOUNT ZION: Driscoll 2-0-0-5 Adams 4-3-8-11, Roberts 2-0-0-5, DiTomaso 1-0-1-3, R. McNeil 1-0-1-2, Baumann 2-0-0-4, Hamrick 7-1-2-15, High 2-3-3-7, Gilman 1-1-2-3, Cuddy 1-0-0-3, Totals 22-8-17-58.

3-point goals: Mattoon 10-24 (Bergstrom 4-9, Thomas 4-8, Carter-Smith 1-2, Farmer 1-3, Middleton 0-2), Mount Zion 2-12 (Driscoll 1-3, Roberts 1-3, DiTommaso 0-4, High 0-2). Rebounds: Mattoon 41 (Driscoll 7), Mount Zion 29 (Adams 7). Shooting percentage: Mattoon .354, Mount Zion .500, Turnovers: Mattoon 15, Mount Zion 19

Junior varsity

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MATTOON: Helms 0-1-2-1, Boyer 3-0-0-8, Powers 5-1-2-11, Kirts 2-0-0-5, Tucker 1-0-0-3, Larson 4-1-3-9, Skocy 6-1-2-14, Grace 0-0-1-0, Totals 21-4-10-51 3-pointers – Mattoon 5 (Boyer 2, Kirts, 1, Tucker 1, Skocy 1)