COLUMBUS — Just two years ago, the Eagles Landing Christian Academy Chargers basketball team finished their season at 4-19. It was their fifth year in a row with a less than a .500 record and time for a change.
Enter head coach Derrick Mason, who came from a successful run as a player and assistant coach at Emmanuel College. The results were immediate — after winning 20 games in his first season, the Chargers reeled off a 26-3 season and advanced to the Class A-Private Final Four, quite a difference than just 24 months prior.
The Final Four opponent was a familiar one. The Chargers had faced the Aquinas Fighting Irish in a Thanksgiving tournament and suffered their worst loss of the season, 65-40, before rebounding well to finish the season with an eight-game winning streak.
Playing at Columbus State University, the Chargers started out hot. They hit three 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the game for an early 11-7 lead, but struggled from the outside and the free-throw line the rest of the way and saw their season end with a 47-41 loss.
Trevon Reddish, Kelvin Jones and Mekhi Cameron all found their range early with 3-pointers and the uptempo style of the game seemed to play into their hands. But with Aquinas packing the lane with a tight 2-3 zone defense, the shots just quit falling after the opening stretch.
ELCA’s confidence seemed to slowly evaporate as the game progressed and caused uncharacteristic turnovers and indecision at times. Aquinas guard Trent Bowdre hit a 3-pointer right as the first half ended to give the Fighting Irish a 20-19 halftime advantage. ELCA would never see the lead again.
Most frustrating for Mason and his team were the free throws. In the matchup with Aquinas earlier in the season, the Chargers only shot four free throws to twenty nine by the Fighting Irish. The tables were turned Friday night as ELCA got 30 free-throw opportunities, but only converted 56 percent, including eight misses alone in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
Even as the missed shots piled up, the Chargers still continued to scrap their way back in the fourth quarter. After a Daniel Parrish jumper gave the Fighting Irish their largest lead at 39-30 with just four minutes remaining, ELCA forward Jamaine Mann single-handedly willed ELCA back into it. He scored inside on back-to-back possessions after both Aquinas big men fouled out.
Time was ELCA’s biggest enemy though, and in the end the deficit was just too big. A Cameron jumper cut the Fighting Irish lead down to four with 33 seconds left, but Aquinas hit their free throws down the stretch and iced the game for the final 47-41 margin.
Mann led the Chargers in scoring with 13 points and seven rebounds while Cameron added 10 and Jones chipped in eight in an overall balanced scoring night.
Mason was optimistic regarding the program’s future after the game.
“We need to repeat the same process, we set the same goal to get 1 percent better every day, and we come back next year 365 percent better and we play in a game like this again and we are more prepared,” he said. “We are a young group, but we have to make free throws, we shot 56 percent. It’s hard to win when you miss that many.”