Mustangs win back-to-back games for the first time since 2015
As the seconds ticked away and the buzzer echoed throughout the gymnasium, Eldon senior Elijah Rivera took the basketball and launched it through the air.
Rivera and the Mustangs had just won their second straight game after holding on to beat Fulton 79-78 Thursday night and it was the second straight win for the program after the team took down Hallsville 85-84 in overtime just two days prior.
"It is the best feeling in the world. I cannot tell you when the last time we won two in a row so it is a great feeling," Rivera said after celebrating with teammates and the Eldon student section.
Well, it would certainly be easy to forgive the senior because Eldon had not accomplished the feat in nearly four years after beating conference foes Osage and Versailles near the end of the 2014 season when the team last put up a winning record of 13-12. Since that time, the Mustangs had won just six games total and were coming off a winless season a year ago.
Now, the program has won four games this year alone and certainly has no intention of stopping there.
"It is awesome, but they've earned it and the guys deserve to win," said Eldon coach Ben Pallardy who is in his first season with the program. "We practice really hard and push them hard. It is super competitive and the guys who are playing have completely earned their spots. They win every single day so they are learning how to win and now that we've done it in a couple of games that were close against good teams that are well-coached, I think it is something you can build on going forward that we know we are capable.
"Now, we can attack every game with the mindset that we know we can win."
The last two games should provide plenty of confidence because neither win came easy. Eldon trailed Hallsville by seven points with a minute left in overtime and erased the deficit with a 9-1 run. In Thursday night's battle the Mustangs overcame a 10-point deficit at the start of the third quarter and led by as many as eight in the fourth before the Hornets started to close the gap.
"I think it shows a lot of mental toughness. That is the big thing because there were so many different points in the game where we could have gave up," Pallardy remarked after his team had also given up a 5-point lead in the first quarter when Fulton went on a 13-2 run. "We were down 10 in the third quarter and we decided that is not how we are going out. We talked in that timeout, and it sounds so cliche, but you have to play to win and cannot play hoping you don't lose.
"I am just really proud of the guys. They have been working so hard and the fight and to know we can win when it has not been the tradition here lately is impressive."
Part of Eldon's spark in the second half came behind the 3-point line as the Mustangs made eight in the final two quarters after making just one the entire first half. Trailing by 10, Eldon went on a 19-6 run to reclaim the lead.
"Shooting is contagious," Pallardy said. "A big reason in the second half why the 3-pointers were falling is because we were getting great shots that were open and were not forcing stuff. Elijah hits a couple and now he is feeling good and can hit that contested shot in the corner. Sam (Rivera) does a good job driving and kicking to Logan (Hall) and getting him a couple of corner 3-pointers that he is great at. When he catches and shoots in that left corner, it is 'money.'
"There are reasons for it and it is because of the execution and the guys playing with flow and playing together."
Elijah led the Mustangs with a career high 30 points while his junior teammate Hall chipped in 17, fellow junior Collin Tamm added 16 and senior Landon Wall recorded eight. Hall had a career high in points in the game against Hallsville and Pallardy noted that when Hall and Elijah step up, good things tend to happen.
"We had a big meeting and the second biggest thing we talked about was leadership from the players. Your leaders are normally going to be your upperclassmen that are your best players so we need Elijah and Logan to be our best players," Pallardy said. "Now that they've done it a few times, I feel like it has kind of sunk in that they are capable. Now, they have done it against a really athletic Fulton team and there is no wondering."
But no comeback would be complete without a little defense and Elijah credited assistant Bruce Marshall who helps shape up the Mustang defense each day.
"He really helps us out with our intensity and what arrangements and adjustments we need to do so big shoutout to him for sure," the senior stated.
Pallardy had good things to say about his assistant as well, noting that Eldon's switch between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense may have slowed down Fulton just enough as the Hornets consistently sought to attack the paint with their size unless they had an open shot elsewhere.
"The guys just competed and that is what we had to do. They (Fulton) were big, strong and fast and had some guys that could really play," the coach pointed out. "Coach Marshall sets us up really well from the work all season long. It is not just about one game or half, this has been a long time coming to be able to get those stops."
But Fulton did not go away as the Hornets extended the game with fouls and forced Eldon to beat them at the free throw line. Fortunately for the Mustangs, the team passed the test after making 10 of 14 attempts to finish the night at 71 percent.
"We just had a really tough one the other night in overtime that came down to free throws as well. It just takes a lot of focus to do that and we practice that," Elijah said. "Our coach told us that we are not going to get anymore wins that are going to be a 'slap on the wrist' easy so we have to come in focused every single game and bring that intensity."
Speaking of free throws, Fulton had possession in the final seconds only trailing by three points. That is when Pallardy directed his team to foul to prevent a 3-point attempt and the Mustangs did so with seven seconds left. Fulton made both shots from the charity stripe, but could not stop Eldon from breaking the press and running out the clock.
"It is just a philosophy. I think you have to make decisions like that before the heat of the moment," Pallardy said after seeing other teams tie up the game in years past. "If we can control it and throw it in, that is just what I believe in. We got the ball inbounds, kicked it ahead and the guys executed our press break perfectly. It was beautiful and exactly how you are supposed to execute it.
"Our guys just showed composure and it is really good to see because we have not been in these situations a ton. To be able to execute it like that is impressive."
Upon doing so, Eldon improved to 4-12 and remains 1-1 in the Tri-County Conference. The Mustangs head to Southern Boone for another conference battle Friday night at 5 p.m., looking to keep the newly formed winning streak alive.
"I think at the beginning of the season we just took dumb shots and everyone was just trying to play for themselves and not as a team. I really think we have it figured out now as a whole," Hall said about the difference in the past two games. "Communication and smarter shots are our main focus now and that is working out."
Time to see if Eldon can employ a similar formula once again. Pallardy said he and his club are looking forward to the challenge of Friday night.
"We have Southern Boone and everyone knows they are good and one of the best teams in the state, but we match up with them fairly well so we have to make sure we come in with that same aggressive mindset we've had the lat two games," the coach said. "If we do that, anything is possible.
"We are going to compete, give it our best shot and are going to take it at them. I know it is Southern Boone's courtwarming so they'll be jacked up. It is going to be exciting and I'm excited to see how we respond."