Photos and story by Chet Piotrowski Jr.

Inexperienced teams are going to make mistakes early in the season.

Mattoon made its fair share Tuesday night, but still just missed pulling off a victory in its season opener – a 51-50 loss to Rantoul in the St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament.

A few mistakes down the stretch led to a few fast-break points, and a little-known rule cost another point at the start of the game.

As a result, the game started with Connor Smith making a free throw to give the Eagles a 1-0 lead.

“I think we dug ourselves some holes early,” Mattoon coach Brandon Jones said. “We have a player who’s never played before his senior year and in warm-ups grabbed the rim. That was a technical. We battled adversity the entire game.”

Mattoon saw a six-point lead slip away in less than two minutes in the fourth quarter. 

We just rushed on offense, made too many turnovers, didn’t really run an offense, didn’t play as a team, and things weren’t clicking there at the end,” Mattoon senior Christian Larson said.

While hanging onto a one-point lead with 1:49 remaining, the Green Wave turned the ball over coming out of a timeout called by Jones. Rantoul’s Colby Duitsman scooped up the ball and drove three-quarters the length of the court before being fouled. He sank both free throws to put the Eagles ahead, 46-45.

Jones had told his players not to foul during that time out.

“We said don’t foul, and we foul,” Jones said. “We’re learning. We’re young. The kids are doing what they can. It’s just going to prepare us.”

Mattoon’s Karson Rice turned the ball over under the basket with about minute left, leading to another fast break that culminated in two more free-throw points for Rantoul and a 50-47 advantage.

Rice would make up for it.

Left alone at the top of the 3-point arc as two teammates criss-crossed towards opposite corners of the offensive zone, Rice swished a shot, tying the score at 50.

“Karson’s in the gym at 7 a.m. every day,” Jones said. “He’s somewhere around 6,000 shots. I’m going to trust my guys to take the shots. Even in an off-game, shooters shoot. I knew I didn’t have any more timeouts, we had to make a gutsy play to stay in it. If we went for two there, we were going to have to foul, and then we’d be right back in that same position. I called a different play for a 3, but they (Rantoul) cheated on defending because they knew what we were going to run, but it left it open.”

Rice and Taerick Grace then trapped Rantoul’s Conner Smith inside the 3-point line after the Eagles lost control of the ball, but Grace was called for a foul. 

Smith sank the first free throw, while the second clanked off the rim. Christian Larson took an outlet pass up the court with 4 seconds left, but the last-second shot caromed off the top of the backboard.

“Dribbled down the court as fast as I could,” Larson said. “24 (Jermaine Jackson) played good defense on me, and had a contested shot at the end. Just couldn’t make it in.”

Jones said the team just needs more time on the court together.

“That’s experience as you go along,” Jones said. “We have some strong seniors who have returned, but right now it’s about the effort. We’re trying a lot of stuff and playing a lot of people. 51-50 wasn’t what I was hoping for.”



Merrill 1 4-4 6, Sjoken 1 0-0 3, Smith 3 2-4 10, Brundage 3 0-0 6, Martin 5 0-0 10. Totals: 13 6-8 50 3-pointers: Sjoken 1, Smith 2, Duitsmen 1.


Powers 1 3-4 5, Wetzel 2 0-0 6, Rica 4 0-0 9, Larson 4 6-6 15, Grace 5 1-2 12, Smith 1 0-0 3. Totals: 17 10-12 50. 3-pointers: Wetzel 2, Rica 1, Larson 1, Grace 1, Smith 1.