ELLIS — Bill Meagher was bracing for heartbreak.
With his Monarchs clinging to a one-point lead in Monday night’s Mid-Continent League quarterfinal against Ellis, the Thomas More Prep-Marian coach watched with bated breath as the Railers’ Brady Frickey put up a jumper as time expired.
“My heart was on the floor because I would have swore it was going in,” Meagher said. “He got a great look.”
Fortunately for the Monarchs, the potential agony turned into jubilation when Frickey’s shot rattled out and TMP escaped with a 54-53 victory to move on to the MCL Tournament semifinals.
Frickey had just hit a 3-pointer moments earlier to pull Ellis within a point before TMP missed two free throws with 5.9 seconds to leave it a one-point game.
Frickey then raced down the floor and pulled up from the left wing.
“I felt like we got a good look,” Ellis coach Mark Eck said. “With 5.9 seconds to go with no timeouts left, I don’t think that you could ask for a better look. We’d put the ball in that situation in Brady’s hands time and time again. … He’s earned the right to take that shot. I told him, ‘I’ll take that shot any time in a situation like that.’ It just didn’t fall, unfortunately.”
After taking a 53-49 loss to Ellis on Jan. 4, a chance at redemption came sooner than TMP expected, with the No. 7-seeded Monarchs meeting the No. 2-seeded Railers in the MCL quarterfinals after TMP beat Smith Center in Saturday's play-in game.
“We have so much respect for Ellis and the program and what they did,” Meagher said. “A good team beat us, and it was a message for us. We went back and watched tape, went back to the drawing board and looked at what we needed to fix; that was what we focused on. But I’d be lying if I said that they didn’t have this as a calendar game they wanted.”
TMP (7-4) got off to a strong start and led 13-9 at the end of the first quarter and 28-23 at halftime. Ellis grabbed a 39-38 heading into the fourth quarter and led by three midway through the final frame before TMP sophomore Jackson Schulte hit arguably the two biggest shots of the game, draining back-to-back threes to put the Monarchs up 47-44 with 3:48 remaining.
“He’s a great shooter. He had great looks,” Meagher said. “A lot of kids maybe as a sophomore wouldn’t pull those. He just knew it was the right shot, the right spot. He put it up and that really lifted us big-time out of a hole.”
Ellis got within a point on two occasions in the last 2:32 but TMP never relinquished never the lead, hitting enough free throws to stay in front despite the close call at the buzzer.
Meagher said the win could be a breakthrough moment for the Monarchs, who have struggled in crunch time this season.
“When we were down one, I said ‘You know all season long when this happens we fold and we can’t come back. What are we going to do? Can we be resolved and get this going back in the right direction.' I was really proud," Meagher said. "This was a big step for us as a team to be able to do that.”
Schulte paced TMP with 16 points while TMP 6-foot-7 senior Jared Mayers followed up his career-high 20-point outing against Smith Center with a 13-point showing.
“I think he got some confidence from the last game and he brought some confidence,” Meagher said of Mayers. “He went and put some shots up early that he’s been passing up. When he hit a couple of those he just got bigger and bigger. When he’s playing with confidence that gives us a good chance.”
With TMP focused on containing Ellis junior Zachary Eck, who put up 26 points in the previous meeting, Frickey, a sophomore guard, stepped up to score a game-high 19 points.
“We knew that we were going to have to have someone step up other than Zachary, because he obviously, a little over a week ago, did quite a bit of damage against them,” Mark Eck said. “I knew that they were going to really key in on him. They did a great job. Credit to TMP’s coaching staff, they pretty much called out every set we have and they did a really good job of cutting some of the stuff away that worked last time.”
Senior Cade Lewis added 12 points for the Railers while Zachary Eck was held to 11.
“Just stay with him everywhere he goes,” Meagher said of the Monarchs’ plan against Eck. “He is such a tremendous scorer and a great basketball mind. We told the guys to stay with him everywhere he goes and they did a great job of doing that.”
Ellis (5-3) hadn’t played since the win against TMP after Friday’s night scheduled game against Hill City was postponed because of the weather.
“I’m not one to make excuses, but I felt it really hurt us not getting to play Friday night,” Mark Eck said. “That was only our second game in 30 days, and (TMP) got three games last week. I went and watched them Saturday night against Smith Center and it was a different team. You could definitely tell they got better last week, and we’re kind of tired of practicing each other to be completely honest.
“With that being said — I think anyone across the league would agree — earning the No. 2 seed and playing them as the No. 7 seed was a tough draw for us. But at the same time, if you want to be a champion, it doesn’t matter when you have to play them. I was just thankful we got them at home and tried to look at the bright side of it.”
TMP will meet Hill City in Friday’s semifinal in WaKeeney after the Ringnecks advanced with a 48-33 win over Oakley on Monday. In the other semifinals, Phillipsburg took a 53-38 win over Norton and Plainville beat Trego 51-36.
Ellis will move to the consolation bracket where it will meet Oakley on Thursday in Stockton.
“Like I told the kids, the sun’s going to come up tomorrow and we’re going to be just fine,” Mark Eck said.