Excel can’t hang on; eliminated in tourney

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The Excel boys basketball team held a 35-15 lead with three minutes left in the third quarter Wednesday in the Eagles’ first Region 6-A tournament game against Mount Pisgah at Excel.

However, Mount Pisgah turned up the pressure against Excel, and turnovers and offensive rebounds allowed the visiting Patriots to come back, eventually taking down Excel by a score of 64-56 in overtime.

The loss likely ends Excel’s season with a 12-14 record as the Eagles were ranked No. 22 in the Class A private power rankings Tuesday, six spots outside the top 16 that make the state playoffs.

“It didn’t come out our way, but I couldn’t be prouder of the group for fighting when things weren’t always perfect,” Excel head coach Matt Sanders said of his team’s season. “Those kids fought and they fought, and they just kept playing hard. That’s one thing, as a coach, I’m extremely proud of is the way they always fought.”

With Excel leading by 20 points, Mount Pisgah started to press fullcourt with roughly 11 minutes remaining in the game. Mount Pisgah forced five Excel turnovers late in the third quarter and six more in fourth to eventually tie the score at 50-50 after regulation.

“The press threw us off. We were playing different guys at different positions,” Sanders said of the turnovers late in the game. “Our shot selection wasn’t the greatest when we did break the press. ... They were long. When I saw them on tape and saw them warm-up, their length and athleticism was one thing that concerned me. That’s something that we don’t have and you can’t coach that. Kudos to that program. They were down 20 and they kept playing.”

Excel had a chance to win the game with the score tied with about 20 seconds remaining in the game, but a quick shot was no good, leaving the Patriots time to go for the game winner. Fortunately for Excel, Mount Pisgah was unable to score on its last possession, sending the game to overtime.

In the extra session, 6-foot-6 sophomore point guard Brandon Younger hit two shots for five points in the first few minutes, forcing Excel to have to foul the rest of the way. Younger then made 7-of-8 free throws in the waning minutes to seal the game.

“We thought [the overtime] was our second life,” Sanders said of taking the game into overtime after a 20-point swing in favor of Mount Pisgah in the final 11 minutes. “It didn’t come out our way, but I couldn’t be prouder of the way we fought.”

Mount Pisgah’s comeback also could be attributed to its rebounding edge in the second half. Excel outrebounded Mount Pisgah 16-9 in the first half, but the advantage was flipped in the second half as Mount Pisgah grabbed 12 offensive boards and outrebounded Excel 18-9 in the last two quarters of regulation.

“It’s hard to win with 12 offensive rebounds in a game. But 12 in a half, you really cut your margin of error down tremendously,” Sanders said. “We had our chances, but second-chance points killed us. Blocking out was what came back and bit us. Second-chance points and not capitalizing when we broke the press is what killed us.”

Despite the tough loss to end the season, Excel played well early in the game to jump out to its big lead. The Eagles held Mount Pisgah to 1-of-12 shooting from the field in the first quarter thanks to a strong defensive effort.

On the other end of the floor, Excel featured a balanced scoring attack in the first half as Latrel Jone scored seven points in the first two quarters, Darius Thrower had five, Caleb West had four and three other players chipped in baskets to build a 26-15 halftime lead.

“The ball was moving. The ball was rotating. We were changing sides, getting extra passes,” Sanders said of the first-half success on offense. “We came back in the second half, and it was one pass, shot; one pass, missed layup; one pass, dribble off our foot. It’s something we have to learn.”

For the game, Thrower led the scoring for Excel with 12 points, down from his season average as the Mount Pisgah defense keyed in on Excel’s star.

“Of course, everybody knows that Darius is the best shooter in the gym,” Sanders said. “We were trying to put him in different positions, but when he’d beat his first defender, that length and that athleticism that they had closed out quickly and it caused some problems for us.”

Jones added 11 points and grabbed five rebounds, while Chris Hale had seven points, five rebounds, five assists and three steals in the game. Hale either scored or assisted on all nine of Excel’s points in the first five minutes of the second half to open up the 20-point lead.

Another stat-sheet stuffing senior likely playing his last game, West scored 10 points, had four assists and recorded three steals. Dylan Drew added eight points and four rebounds, including three fourth-quarter baskets to help Excel bring the game into overtime.

“He definitely gave us some good minutes,” Sanders said of Drew. “I was proud of him and the way he came in and took advantage of the opportunity. That’s someone we’re going to depend on to build with next year.”

Excel finished the season 6-4 in the regular season region schedule, including a five-game win streak that saw the Eagles defeat some of the top teams in the region like Christian Heritage and Walker.

“We had some ups and downs,” Sanders said of Excel’s season. “What I tell them is, ‘Everything that we try to do from a basketball perspective, we want to talk about it from a life perspective. Life is up and down. Let’s find a way to be mentally tough and handle adversity and still try to give ourselves the best opportunity to be successful.’ I’m proud of how we handled things when everything wasn’t perfect. The kids kept fighting.”