Mustangs reach title game for first time since 2012

There was plenty of joy in Eldon Thursday night.

When the buzzer sounded Mustang students rushed the floor because their team had just outpaced Highway 52 neighbor Versailles 72-68 in the semifinals of the Eldon Tournament to reach the championship game for the first time since 2012. 

"I think it is a huge turning point for everybody," said Eldon senior Elijah Rivera who endured a winless season with the program last year and helped the team win back-to-back games for the first time in four years earlier this year. "Tonight, this was the most people I've ever seen in this gym in my four years playing here so it is really exciting.

"I know this community has our backs and we have a lot of support from this community so that is one of the best feelings in the world."

Eldon coach Ben Pallardy noted his players should be feeling good because that win, like others Eldon has been privileged to attain, did not come easy. In a fight to the finish where there were nine lead changes and five ties with neither side leading by more than six points, his team found a way.

"I just think that we believe in our guys. As coaches, we believe in them and I thought there were some points in the fourth quarter when Versailles takes the lead and we immediately came down and made a play," the coach pointed out. "I believe in our team, I believe in each individual guy and I think that allows us to just play free and play for each other. I'm just really proud of them."

The game was tied at 68 with 32 seconds remaining and a pair of Eldon free throws with 19 seconds remaining gave the Mustangs the lead for good. On the ensuing Versailles possession, the Tigers twice had close contested looks at the basket but could not find a way to put the ball through the net. Eldon senior Logan Hall was fouled after securing the rebound with two seconds remaining and he proceeded to knock down two game-clinching free throws.

"It took a lot of guts first of all to get that rebound and he stepped up, 'Cool Hand Luke' and knocked them (free throws) down," Pallardy said after his team finished 65 percent as a team from the charity stripe.

For Versailles coach Jason Ollison, it was just a matter of some unlucky bounces.

"We missed enough shots to choke a horse tonight and they had shots falling for them so it was one of those nights. The ball bounces your way some nights and some nights it goes out," the coach said after some bounces went the team's way in an overtime win over Iberia in the first round.

"We just wanted to keep attacking... We had some good looks there late and it did not fall. For me as a coach, if we are losing games because a shot did not fall here or there we are doing ok. It is whenever you are getting outhustled and outworked, that is when it is not but that was not the case tonight. We played as hard as we could play."

Pallardy certainly took notice, commending Ollison for the job he has done as well as the play of senior Wyatt Espinosa and Coby Williams who proved to be tough to stop. Espinosa finished with 33 points to lead all scorers while Williams added 26.

"I don't know if anybody can stop them," Pallardy said of the Tiger duo that Eldon sought to slow down by switching between man-to-man and zone defenses.

"I'm just really proud of the way we battled because those two players are probably as good as anybody we'll probably play all season long. They are two of the best players in our conference so offensively, those guys are incredible. We battled and I thought at times we made them inefficient which really helped us."

While the Tigers did not get the win, it was still a milestone night as Espinosa joined his teammate Williams in the 1,000-point club at Versailles. A drive to the basket with a scooped layup in the third quarter brought some extra loud cheers from Versailles fans.

"They (Espinosa and Williams) are the hardest workers we have and they are in the gym all the time working on their game and doing what they can do," Ollison remarked. "I know Wyatt well enough to know he would have traded all 1,000 points for a win tonight but that is not the way it works. He is a class act, a great kid, I love him to death and I am super proud of him."

Fortunately for Eldon, the Mustangs had a few scorers of their own Thursday night led by Rivera who finished the game with 19 points respectively. Hall chipped in 17 points, junior Collin Tamm added 16 and junior Clayton Moore put up eight.  Pallardy said Versailles did a good job of trying to disrupt Rivera and Hall early in the game and little adjustments were key.

"There were a handful of times Landon Wall set a screen for Logan that would get him the ball so he could attack downhill and get to the basket. Elijah is amazing in transition and always seems to make the right play getting to the basket or finding open guys," the coach stated.

"I thought we don't win this game without Collin Tamm stepping up. He missed a couple of layups early but made sure he stayed aggressive and he was huge," the coach added noting the junior's footwork and ability to finish around the basket. "He does an amazing job and he stepped up big time."

Versailles actually had another milestone take place Thursday night as junior Quinn Randall became the school's single season and career record holder for charges drawn. Unfortunately for the Tigers, it was not quite enough to slow down the Mustangs.

"We did not keep them out of the paint as well as we would like to and let a couple of their shooters get away from us at a couple of times, but I thought overall with the pace of the game we did a pretty decent job of keeping them where we wanted to," Ollison said. "We just have to shore up a few things, but no panic here."

Versailles (8-10) will take on Eugene in the third place game Saturday night at 6 p.m., and moving forward, Ollison said he likes the way his team is competing and is lookng forward to the rematch with the Mustangs

"We still have a month to go and we are probably going to see these guys two more times because as well as they keep playing they are going to be in that district final with us," the coach posited. "We are going to have to get them a couple more times so we have a long ways to go and we are just going to continue to improve."

Eldon (6-13) has won four of its past five games and now has a championship to play for Saturday night against top-seeded Lebanon. The Mustangs entered the tournament as the seventh seed.

"I'm just really happy for the guys and the community. I know they've been longing for basketball to be really good and our guys have stepped up," Pallardy pointed out. "We have good players and they believe in themselves so amazing things can happen when you believe in yourself.

"Our student section was unbelievable tonight.," the coach added. "We fed off that energy and it was impressive so I'm just excited for the school and community of Eldon." 

Eldon visited Lebanon earlier this season and endured a tough loss, but Rivera said things may be a little different this time around with the hard work and composure his team has put together.

"We are going to try to come back. I think we are a different team from the last time we played them so we are going to go get that win," the senior said.

Time will soon tell when the two sides tip off at 7:30 p.m.