CANTON — When Cardinal Mooney lost to Lutheran East in last year’s regional semifinal, the Cardinals wasted no time getting back to work to make another tournament run.
Mooney wanted another shot at the Falcons.
Mooney got the opportunity it had worked toward — knocking out two No. 1 seeds in the tournament along the way. But ultimately, the Cardinals came up short, as Mooney’s postseason run came to an end Saturday night in a 50-35 loss to the Falcons in the Division III Canton regional final.
“It sucks that it’s over,” an emotional Mick Hergenrother said after the loss. “We had a great group of seniors, and I think we built enough off what we had last year, and I’m really expecting a lot from the group next year.”
Despite losing the talent it did from last year’s team, the Cardinals didn’t miss a beat this season, making it back to regionals, and even getting a step further to the regional final. However, Mooney head coach Carey Palermo insists that his group isn’t satisfied with just a regional runner-up finish though, and like last season, plans to get right back to work.
“We’ve got a lot of talent coming back,” Palermo said. “Got a lot of very good underclassmen — a very good sophomore class. We’re going to be back here. We’re going to be ready for them, and we’re going to give it our best shot when we do get back here.”
From the opening tip, the most noticeable difference between the two teams was Lutheran East’s size. The Falcons are both tall and long, with five players coming in at 6-foot-4 or taller and two of those players measuring 6-foot-7 and 6-foot-9. In comparison, Mooney’s tallest player is listed at 6-foot-3.
That size most affected the Cardinals on offense. With a 6-foot-7 and / or a 6-foot-9 player waiting in the lane, it made it difficult for Mooney to attack the rim the way it wanted. When the Cardinals would drive, Lutheran East’s length would alter or affect shots, even if they didn’t necessarily block it.
“We were prepared for that,” Palermo said. “We wanted to drive and kick and get into the middle of the defense and (Hergenrother) did an awesome job. But, their length did bother our shots. The normal ‘open’ that we’re used to against Campbell or Springfield or Liberty isn’t the same against these guys, so it was tough.”
In the first half, Mooney controlled the pace of the game the way it wanted, but wasn’t able to hit the shots it needed to match, and trailed the Falcons by 10 at the break.
“We’re not always the most athletic team or quickest team or most skilled team, but we work really hard every game and that’s what we pride ourselves in,” Hergenrother said. “It’s tough to get buckets against these guys. I think we came out and got some open looks, but we just didn’t hit many shots.”
Still, the Cardinals quickly made their move to start the second half. Back-to-back threes from Jack Pepperney and Rocco Turner cut the deficit to four, but that was as close as Mooney would get as the two teams spent the rest of the period exchanging buckets.
Clinging to an eight-point lead to start the fourth, the Falcons made their run. A 10-0 spurt to open the quarter put the game out of reach for the Cardinals. Kaleb Burge provided a spark off the bench for the Falcons, scoring 11 points, and Jamail Spivey also tallied 11 to lead Lutheran East.
“We just didn’t make enough shots,” Palermo said. “We had great clean looks and we got the lead to four in the third quarter. I think we really had them scrambling a little bit, but credit to them, (Burge) averaged like 1.8 points per game for them and ended up with 11 — he made shots.”
Hergenrother finished with 13 points to lead the Cardinals, while Turner added 10.
With its season over, Mooney finishes 18-10 and as the Canton regional runner up.
“I’m proud of these guys — we were the last area team standing,” Palermo said. “I’m not sure many people thought we could get back to this point. We talk every year about improving our program. Five years ago, we went from five wins to 10 to 12 to 17 and now 18 wins and regional runner-up and one game away from states. Seniors have meant so much to our program over the years. You know your program is in a good place when everyone — the seniors, sophomores, coaches — were crying in the locker room just because of how tight this team was.”