Mt. Pleasant rallies to reach state tournament
IOWA CITY — The defending state champions are going back to Des Moines.
After a big comeback, during which the Mt. Pleasant defense gave up only nine second-half points, the Panthers defeated No. 10 Solon 51-33 in a Class 3A Substate 5 final at Iowa City West High School on Monday night.
The win earns the Panthers their fourth straight trip to Des Moines.
“It feels fantastic,” said Logan Mulford, a senior. “We’ve gone every year I’ve been in high school.”
The same goes for Connor Shull, Cameron Frank, Dalton Conrad and Ryan Hanna.
The come-from-behind victory also means another state tournament trip for head coach Paul Rundquist, who has taken his team to the substate game eight times in his 13 years at Mt. Pleasant, and has now won that substate game four times.
“It means a lot [to be going back to Des Moines],” Rundquist said. “It means I get to coach these kids another week.”
One other group is also thrilled about making another drive to the state capital: the fans. Once again, Mt. Pleasant supporters packed the gym, and the crowd was deafening from tip-off.
“I didn’t see an empty seat,” said Frank.
Early in the game, however, it was the Solon fans who got to do most of the cheering.
In the first half, Mt. Pleasant struggled against an aggressive Solon team. Their shots under the basket got swatted away by the big, athletic Spartans, and their outside shots went everywhere except in the basket.
But they had to keep shooting.
“The teams that beat Solon had seven, eight or nine 3-pointers,” Rundquist said. “We knew we were going to have to knock down some threes.”
But it didn’t happen in the first half, as the Panthers went 0-for-15 from beyond the arc.
“Their defense was good,” Hanna said.
Meanwhile, the Mt. Pleasant defense was a little slow in transition, leading to a number of Solon layups.
The first two minutes of the game were scoreless, but then Solon’s Emilio Villagrana got a steal and made a layup — the first of six in the half for the Solon team — to put the Spartans on the board.
But the Panthers didn’t let them get too far ahead, as Frank made a jumper in the lane to open up the scoring for Mt. Pleasant. Later in the quarter, Mt. Pleasant added three free throws. Then, on his way to a team-high 12 points, Conrad made a layup in transition to make it 8-7 in favor of Solon.
Then the Panthers got stuck at seven.
The Spartans scored eight unanswered points to end the quarter, and they stretched the lead to as many as 14 points at 21-7 before Conrad hit a free throw to end the run.
Mt. Pleasant made a up a little ground in the last few minutes of the second quarter, but the teams went into the break with Solon still in control of the game, 24-16.
“I told them to keep their composure,” Rundquist said. “I said they’d be in it if they just kept guarding and kept [Solon] off the glass.
“You’ve got to give the kids credit,” he added. “They really believe in our system; they believed that we could come back and win.”
Shull was not shy about expressing that belief.
“When we got in the locker room, I just started yelling, ‘We gotta go!’” he said, and noted that Rundquist encouraged the team to play their game.
“Coach told us, ‘Just keep shooting. You’re getting good looks; they’ll fall,’” Shull said. “And as you can tell, they did fall later in the game.”
Mulford’s was the first to fall.
He sank a 3-pointer about two minutes into the second half, bringing the Panthers within five at 24-19.
A minute later, Shull hit his first shot from deep, pulling the Panthers within two. He’d hit another just two minutes later.
Frank tied the score at 24 when he was fouled on a layup after stealing an inbounds pass and made both free throws. He then laid one up on an assist from Shull to give Mt. Pleasant its first lead of the game, 26-24, and the Panthers never looked back.
While the Mt. Pleasant offense heated up, the defense shut down Solon — the Spartans managed only two points in the third quarter.
Shull, Faith Pope, Conrad and Frank each had key steals early in the fourth quarter to help the Panthers distance themselves on the scoreboard.
“When we play good defense, we get good offense,” said Frank, who finished with 11 points.
“We needed to rebound the ball,” Hanna said. “We started picking up [our defense] in the second half, and that’s why we won.”
Pope finished with a team-high 10 rebounds, and Frank pulled down six boards. He also dished four assists. Pope had five steals and six blocks on the night.
With the Panthers leading 33-27, Trey Magnani took a charge that took Villagrana out of the game on fouls with five minutes left to play, and in the next three minutes, the Panthers went on an eight-point run.
In the last 2:20 of the game, Solon sent the Panthers to the free throw line five times, and the Panthers made nine of 10 free throws.
“Once we got to the last minute, I was like, here we go,” Hanna said. “It feels so great. There are a lot of emotions right now — I’m tired, but I’m excited.”
“We’re going home,” said Frank of the state tournament, a place that’s become very familiar to the Panthers and their fans.
“The crowd really helped us [Monday night],” Conrad said.
The crowd won’t get any quieter in Des Moines, and those who have played there know that very well.
“We have to focus, and we have to talk — it is so loud out there,” Mulford said.
For now, the Panthers (19-5) have a day off to rest and enjoy their victory.
The coaches will be enjoying it, too.
“I can’t tell you how many hours we watched film,” Rundquist said. “It feels nice to not have to watch any more Solon tape.”
The next team the Panthers and their coaching staff have to prepare for is Waverly-Shell Rock (20-4).
But according to Rundquist, any team in the tournament would be a tough opponent.
“If you look at the 3A field, it’s really solid, top to bottom,” he said.
Mt. Pleasant will see the Go-Hawks in the first round at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines. The game is at 8:15 p.m. on Tuesday, March 5.