Many roads came to an end on Saturday when Mooseheart lifted the Class 1A state championship trophy.
For the Ramblers boys basketball team, the 63-47 victory over Heyworth ended a journey that started in November, not far from Peoria, at the Canton Thanksgiving tournament. The team's pathway ended with a 29-3 record.
For three players on the squad -- Mangisto Deng, Makur Puou and Akin Nyang -- the contest ended their three-year journey from South Sudan, a pathway that moved through legal courtrooms and basketball courts and finally center court of the Peoria Civic Center.
Mooseheart seniors saw their their high school basketball journeys culminate. JJ Odunsi and Peter Kurowski graduate in May, along with Deng and Puou.
Finally, there was the campus' pathway that began in 1913 when it was founded as a place for children in-need to receive a second chance. In its 101st year of existence, Mooseheart claimed its first team state title.
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime feeling," Mooseheart sophomore guard Freddie Okito said. "There's probably no other feeling like this."
The Ramblers hoisted the trophy, celebrated amongst themselves, then turned to their fans and exchanged handshakes and hugs with campus staff, Mooseheart graduates and their fellow students from the school's elementary school, middle school and high school.
"I don't know how to explain it," Deng said. "It's once in a life thing."
There was also a strong contingent of Moose members in the crowd. Since that 1913 founding, the Moose fraternity has made life possible for all boys and girls who have come through Mooseheart's gates.
"I've said all along that it's great for the Mooseheart community and it's great for the fraternity," Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said. "We've got a million fans and I guarantee there were 100,000 or so watching it live streaming on the Internet."
Saturday, all those Ramblers fans were focused on a basketball game, and Mooseheart's first appearance in a state title game. After jumping to a 19-2 lead, Heyworth (26-8) rallied and trailed 33-27 at halftime.
"We got up 19-2 and we didn't look like we could run an offense," Ahrens said. "We've played 32 games and we didn't look like we knew how to run an offense for a 5-6 minute period."
The key moment of the contest came in midway in the third quarter when point guard Okito left the game after falling hard on a defensive collision. Okito's nose was bleeding badly and he left the court for medical examination.
"They took me into the medical room," Okito said. "It was really bloody. They gave me a whole bunch of concussion tests and they made sure there was nothing wrong with my neck either."
The Ramblers led 33-29 at that point and Heyworth (26-8) continued a surge that saw the Hornets take the lead on a Kaleb Marr 3-pointer. That shot from the right wing gave Heyworth a 34-33 lead with 5:29 left in the quarter.
Mooseheart tied the contest on a Deng free throw with 5:06 left and the Ramblers regained the lead when Puou scored, was fouled and converted the 3-point play.
Okito returned to the game with 2:09 left and the Ramblers still ahead, 42-38. The run continued into the fourth quarter when the Ramblers' lead reached 52-38 on a Deng dunk.
"Heyworth was a physical team -- they played so hard," Deng said. "We went down a little bit when (Okito) went down. We talked about it on the bench that we had this --this was our day today. We wanted to play strong and we won."
While he was off the court, Okito couldn't wait to return to the game. Within the first minute of play after he re-entered the contest, the sophomore drove to the basket, was fouled and made one of the free throws.
"I knew I had to try to get myself together and to push through it so I could come out and help the team win again," Okito said.
Deng finished a game-high 27 points, giving him a total of 51 points in two downstate performances.
"I'm going to do what I can do," Deng said. "They're not going to stop me. If they're double-teaming me, I'm going to kick the ball outside to my teammates. And my teammates did a really great job feeding me the ball."
Mooseheart had three players in double-figure scoring. In addition to Deng, Puou scored 15 points and added 12 rebounds while Hameed Odunewu scored 11 points.
Poor shooting plagued the Hornets, who hit 17-of-73 shots (23.3 percent).
-- Darryl Mellema, Associate Editor, Moose International Dept. of Communication