Guard duo of Paige, Monday spark Van Horn past Ruskin in sectional

Bill Althaus
The Examiner

When the host Ruskin Eagles took a 19-13 lead into the second quarter of Tuesday’s Class 5 sectional contest against Van Horn, Falcons coach Max Sollars calmly and cooly brought his players to the bench for a quick analysis.

“They got us that first quarter, but like Coach Sollars said, we hadn’t gotten into our rhythm, you know, and started playing Van Horn basketball,” senior guard Jaden Monday said after teaming with backcourt mate Jeremy Paige for 49 points in a 69-55 victory over the Eagles.

“As a team, we were on a roll for the rest of the game. Coach knew exactly what he was doing after the first quarter. We were disappointed and he just encouraged us and told us to go play the way we’re capable of playing – and that’s what we did.”

Van Horn guard Jeremy Paige cuts through the Ruskin defense for two of his game-high 26 points in Tuesday's Class 5 sectional playoff at Ruskin. Paige and the Falcons claimed a 69-55 win and a berth in Friday's state quarterfinals.

The 20-7 Falcons (20-7) now host No. 2-ranked Mexico (21-3), a 55-49 winner over Kearney, at 6 p.m. Friday in a Class 5 state quarterfinal.

“I don’t know anything about Mexico right now,” Sollars said as he accepted hugs and handshakes from the Falcon faithful who made the trip to Ruskin, “but call me at 3 a.m., and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”

Van Horn responded to Sollars by scoring 17 second-quarter points and taking a 30-27 halftime lead that they never relinquished.

And here’s how they did it:

• Monday scored 23 points and proved to the Eagles that he had to be guarded after taking two steps past the midcourt line as all three of his 3-pointers were from NBA range.

• Paige hit four 3-pointers and proved he could knife through the Eagles’ zone defense and score on much taller defenders.

• Sean Mitchell, who scored just two points, was a huge factor as he grabbed eight rebounds, drew three charging calls and had two steals.

• Alex Morales grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds and blocked four shots. In one block, he grabbed the ball away from the offensive player.

• Darius Ross came off the bench and gave the Falcons sterling defensive play, while grabbing six boards in the second half.

Van Horn guard Brycen Dean slices through the Ruskin defense for a shot in Tuesday's Class 5 sectional playoff at Ruskin. Dean and the Falcons claimed a 69-55 win and a berth in Friday's state quarterfinals.

“This team feeds off each other – Sean takes a charge, or Alex gets a rebound, and that just makes me and Jaden want to score that much more,” Paige said.

“Scorebooks are overrated. Sure, you need points to win, but we don’t win tonight without the contributions of Sean, Alex, Darius and all the guys who played.”

He paused for a moment, and added, “And the guys on the bench. Man, they were fired up, and so were our fans.”

Many of the Falcon reserves had to sit in the stands as socially distancing kept them from sitting in folding chairs on the floor.

“Get this,” Sollars said, “twice the official came over and told me our guys had to settle down. They were standing and yelling for their teammates. I told them to sit down, but I wasn’t going to tell them to stop supporting their teammates.

“We don’t have a team, we have a family. And this family loves each other. I can’t wait to get to practice every day to be around these kids. I love them like they were my own kids.”

Head coach Max Sollars, top right, poses for a photo with his team after the Falcons defeated Ruskin 69-55 in a sectional playoff Tuesday to advance to Friday's Class 5 state quarterfinals.

And his players said the feeling is mutual.

“Do you see how Coach greets us when we come off the court to the bench?” Mitchell asked. “He’s as excited as we are. He’s our coach, our leader. He gets us fired up and we get him fired up.

“I can’t wait for our next game. Only eight teams left playing and we’re one of them, and it’s all because of the way Coach works with us, leads us and gets us ready for our next game.”

The Falcons kept the pedal to the metal in the third quarter as a no-look pass from Monday to Paige, a Paige 3-pointer and a Monday jumper made it 39-30 at the 4:10 mark.

“We all did what we do best,” Morales said, “I get rebounds – especially on the defensive boards because Jaden and Jeremy don’t miss many shots – and those two guys score, and Sean does all the things that win games that never show up in a scorebook.

“That’s why we’re still playing, all we want to do is win.”

Chinedum Ikika led Ruskin (12-14) with 13 points and Joshua Williams came off the bench to add 12.

Van Horn guard Jaden Monday (11) discusses strategy with teammates Brycen Dean, center, and Jeremy Paige (4) in Tuesday's Class 5 sectional playoff at Ruskin. Paige (26) and Monday (23) combined for 49 points in the 69-55 victory.