IOWA CITY– Turnovers and a suffocating Mount Pleasant defense spelled trouble for the Spartans.
Solon fell in the Class 3A Substate 5 final, 51-33, to the defending champion Panthers Monday night at Iowa City West.
The Spartans held a 14-point lead at one point in the first half, but a wound-up Mount Pleasant team started hitting the 3-pointers they missed earlier in a second half that saw only one made field goal by Solon until the game was in its final minute.
It is the third year in a row the Spartans have fallen in the substate final. Solon has appeared in the state tournament qualifier game nine consecutive years.
The Spartans played about as well as they could have expected in the first quarter, leading 21-7 and dominating defensively. Mount Pleasant gnawed back into the game in the second quarter, feeding off some Solon miscues. But the Panthers were missing their jump shots and Solon’s Ethan Ahern had doggedly held 6-6 post Faith Pope scoreless.
In the third period, Pope began to assert himself defensively, and Solon went on an offensive drought as a result. The Spartans scored only 2 points in the third period. Mount Pleasant led 32-26 heading into the fourth and prevailed 51-33.
Ryan Kunkel led the Solon scoring with 9 points. Joe Weeks added 8, and Emilio Villagrana, Ethan Ahern and Rory Siddell each scored 4.
The Spartans had been more effective in their previous two postseason wins against Washington and then Keokuk.
Washington came into the district semifinal Monday, Feb. 18, with only five wins on the season, but the Demons came out on fire, taking a halftime lead against the Spartans at home.
Washington’s leading scorer, Kyle Roder, hit some early 3-pointers and the Demons held a 29-28 lead at the end of two periods.
“We were not very aggressive,” said Solon head coach Brad Randall. “Tentative.”
A big run in the third quarter and some stiff defense was just what the doctor ordered. Solon came out in the third and outscored Washington, 19-2, thanks in part to senior Austin M. Miller.
“They really tried to bottle up Joe (Weeks) and (Ryan) Kunkel,” said Randall. Miller was 3-4 from the 3-point line and 5-6 from the field for the game. “That just kind of opened up the floor for us,” Randall said of Miller’s performance. “It was pretty vital.”
Solon latched onto a 47-31 lead heading into the fourth quarter and never let go, winning 58-40.
Emilio Villagrana was the leading scorer with 18 points, including 4-4 from the free throw line. Miller added 13 points and five steals while Kunkel scored 10 points on 5-7 shooting.
Kunkel had eight rebounds and Weeks had seven to lead the Spartans. Villagrana had four assists.
And while the scoring helped, it was also pretty important to hold Washington scoreless for a long period of time. “It was really good defense,” Randall said. “It really changed the game.”
Against Keokuk Friday, Feb. 22, it was the second quarter that gave the Spartans control of the District 10 final.
Solon had the lead after the first, and then held the Chiefs scoreless to take a 23-9 halftime lead. Keokuk cut into the lead slightly in the third quarter, but the Spartans fended it off with 19 fourth quarter points on the way to a 49-30 win.
“We’re doing a lot of good things offensively,” Randall said. “We just need to make a few shots.”
He praised the defense that kept Keokuk’s leading scorers- Jonny Dahl and Kendall Clark– at bay. Siddell, Nick Shelman, Villagrana and Ahern all shared in the defensive assignments, the coach noted.
Taking a nod from Washington, Keokuk collapsed on Solon’s big men, and again, Austin M. Miller picked up the scoring slack. Miller scored 15 points, going 4-6 from the field and 4-6 from the free throw line.
Villagrana had 11 points, while Kunkel added 9.
The Spartans shot 29.5 percent from the field and 64.5 percent from the free throw line (on 31 attempts).