ELLIS — For a team that’s suffered its fair share of lopsided losses to Thomas More Prep-Marian over the last few years, Friday night’s bid for a breakthrough victory didn’t get off to the most encouraging start for the Ellis boys basketball team.
TMP looked poised for a run-of-the-mill victory over the Railroaders after opening up a 22-10 lead by the end of the first quarter and leading by as much as 15 in the second frame.
But after trimming the deficit to seven by halftime and fighting back to grab the lead in the third quarter, Railers' coach Mark Eck sensed his team was gaining the confidence needed to pull off the upset.
“Once we came out and made a little bit of a run, I could see it in the kids' eyes that they finally believed that they could beat TMP," Eck said.
From there, the belief only grew stronger.
Ellis used a 26-point night from Zachary Eck and a strong defensive effort in the second half to notch a 53-49 home win over TMP, beating the Monarchs for the first time since they joined the Mid-Continent League in the 2014-15 season.
“They’ve had our number, for sure, throughout the years,” Eck said. “I’ve got to give all the credit to my kids. They’ve been working their tail off. I get on them in practice and tell them this and tell them that. They’re really responding well to what we’re trying to teach them.
“Fortunately, getting a big win tonight is going to make a big step in the right direction.”
The Railers (5-2, 1-1 MCL) outscored the Monarchs 17-4 in the third quarter to take a 40-34 lead. Zachary Eck, a junior guard, helped the Railers fend off the Monarchs, delivering 11 fourth-quarter points including two big 3-pointers early in the frame.
“A lot of it was my teammates. They found me when I was open and I started feeling my shot,” Eck said.
“We had a couple of sets that were working really well and were getting him some open shots,” Mark Eck said of Zachary's clutch shots. “The first half, it seemed like he had about three or four of them that went in and out. We talked at halftime: ‘Hey we just got to knock some shots down and it’ll give us a good opportunity to win.' "
The Railers went up by as much as 10 (48-38) in the fourth and came up with key stops and free throws to keep the Monarchs at bay, with Eck hitting 5 of 6 foul shots down the stretch.
TMP (4-3, 2-1 MCL) had one last gasp after cutting the lead to four with 7.6 seconds left. They forced a tie-up on the alternate possession but missed a shot in the closing seconds before time expired.
“Our defense really stepped up the second half,” Zachary Eck said. "First half, we had a tough time with our backside rotation. Second half we got it figured out and we got some stops.”
The Monarchs came out strong out of the gate with a 16-6 run, but struggled to get in sync offensively from the second quarter on.
“I think we relaxed a little bit and lost a little bit of focus,” TMP first-year head coach Bill Meagher said. “Our guys are figuring out, especially on the road, you can’t just flip that switch and get it back.
“I think things were too easy early, so then guys kind of got out of the offense and started just trying to force some stuff."
Sophomore Brady Frickey and senior Cade Lewis added eight and seven points, respectively, for Ellis. Junior Carter Bollig chipped in six, including a key fourth-quarter basket that pushed the lead to 10.
Mark Eck said he wasn't sure of the last time Ellis had beaten TMP but believed it hadn't happened for several years.
“It’s a big win for our program, but at the same time we’re going to lace them up again on Monday,” he said. “We’re not going to be satisfied with this. We’re going to continue to try and get better like we’ve been doing every day since the first day of practice.
“Hopefully we can build off it. It’s a stepping stone, but we still got a lot of season left to play. It’s just a stepping stone. We’re going to show up Monday and try to get better.”
Sophomore Jackson Schulte led the Monarchs with 13 points while Carson Jacobs finished with 11.
TMP will look to bounce back on Saturday on the road against Sacred Heart.
“I told the guys that this is a good lesson for us at this time of the year,” Meagher said. “We got to practice better. We’ve been talking about not ending possessions right now — we don’t get defensive boards and we don’t get loose balls. We’ve got to get better at that, and I think this will hammer that home for these guys.”