Jaden Monday's 'explosion' sparks Falcons to upset of No. 2-ranked Mexico in quarterfinal

Bill Althaus
The Examiner

As the Van Horn boys basketball players walked out to the court to begin the fourth quarter of Friday’s Class 5 state quarterfinal, they were smiling.

So was Max Sollars, as much of a father figure as a head coach to his Falcons, who were heavy underdogs as they faced Mexico, the No. 2-ranked team in the state.

The Bulldogs were leading 55-49 and Jaden Monday, Van Horn’s senior star guard, had just found his range, scoring eight points in the third quarter.

“They don’t know us very well, because they’re talking and telling us how they’re gonna get us,” Jeremy Paige, Monday’s sneaky quick backcourt mate, said. “They didn’t know an explosion was about to go off.”

It went off at 6:24 of the fourth quarter when Monday, who scored a season-high 41 points, let a 3-point shot fly after taking two steps past midcourt.

Van Horn senior Darius Ross (10) tosses the ball in the air as the final seconds run off the clock to celebrate the Falcons' 91-83 overtime victory over No. 2-ranked Mexico in a Class 5 state quarterfinal Friday at Van Horn High School. The Falcons advanced to their first basketball state final four since 1983 with the upset win.

As the shot hit nothing but net, he stood with his shooting hand raised high as a fan screamed, “This game’s over!”

The Falcons used a 8-0 run to start the fourth quarter and take a 57-55 lead, but had to “settle” for a thrilling 91-83 overtime win. Monday scored seven overtime points and Paige picked two Bulldog pockets to lead to early overtime baskets.

Long after the game ended, the Falcons returned to the court, met with family, friends and fans and took a special team photo, as they are just the second Van Horn team to reach the state final four and the first since finishing as the state runner-up in 1983.

“When Jaden hit that (long) 3-pointer I knew he was back and we were gonna win this game,” said Paige, who kept the Falcons in the game early as he scored 14 of his 29 points in the first quarter. “Just took him a little while to get going tonight, so the rest of us took care of some things waiting for him to explode.”

Van Horn senior guard Jaden Monday (11) glides in for a layup in a Class 5 state quarterfinal against Mexico Friday. Monday fired in a season-best 41 points to lead the Falcons to a 91-83 overtime win and a berth in the state final four.

The Falcons held a 76-74 lead with six seconds left in the fourth quarter when Brycen Dean was fouled. He missed the first free throw but hit the second. But an official ruled a teammate had stepped over the line, erasing what might have been the winning point in regulation.

Mexico’s Isaiah Reams took advantage, driving the length of the court and hitting a layup at the buzzer to send the playoff game into overtime.

That’s when “the little things” that Sollars is so passionate in talking about led to the biggest win in recent Van Horn memory.

Paige started the overtime period with back-to-back steals that led to layups by Darius Ross and Paige.

Monday then hit three baskets and a late free throw to set off a tame and socially distanced celebration.

“There weren’t going to be no buzzer beaters in overtime,” Paige said, as Monday grinned.

Monday was simply too exhausted to recount the biggest win of his life.

Van Horn junior guard Jeremy Paige (4) is greeted by teammates Sean Mitchell, left, and Cooper Sumpter (1) after Mexico calls a timeout in Friday's Class 5 state quarterfinal. Paige scored 14 of his 29 points in the first quarter and the Falcons went on to a 91-83 victory in overtime to advance to the state final four.

“I was just feeling it,” Monday said, when asked about the long-range 3-point bomb that gave the Falcons their first lead of the second half. “The crowd had me hyped. I didn’t want to let my team down, and when I hit it, I felt like, ‘Game on!’”

And it was.

“Being down by six in the fourth quarter was nothing,” an exhausted Sollars said as he slumped to the floor of the Van Horn locker room. “You’ve seen us play enough times this season to know the game is never over till the final horn sounds. I knew that – and, more importantly, my guys knew that.”

Sollars paused, to catch his breath and collect his thoughts, as he talked about the impact of a win like this on a team that many times had a handful of players at practice because of COVID-19 and personal issues.

“This win, this game, is so much bigger than basketball – so much bigger,” Sollars said. “Right now, varsity, JV and C team – we have 13 kids. Do you know how much those 13 kids wanted to win tonight?

“They wanted to win for each other. They wanted to win for our school, for our fans, for my aunt (Lisa Sollars, the unofficial team mother hen), for the folks in the community who found out how special these guys are and came out and supported them all season.

“And there were a lot of people who didn’t believe in them, and I think that made my guys work harder. For many of them, this will be the greatest success, the greatest experience of their lives.

“When I was in high school (at St. Joseph Lafayette), we went to the final four just about 10 years ago to the day, and I still remember everything about that game, about that season.”

Van Horn junior guard Jeremy Paige, center, dribbles against Mexico defenders Raef Yager (25) and Jordan Mitchell, right, in Friday's Class 5 state quarterfinal against Mexico. Paige scored 29 points as the Falcons went on to a 91-83 victory in overtime to advance to the state final four.

And his high school coach at Lafayette, Chris Neff, now the coach at Staley, was on hand to watch Sollars and his Falcons Friday night.

“For the first time in his career, his season ended before ours and it meant a lot to me to see him in the stands; the same goes for Jake,” Sollars said of Neff and Chrisman coach Jake Kates, whose Bears lost to Van Horn in the district final.

Sollars’ Falcons (19-9) advance to the Class 5 state final four at JQH Arena in Springfield. After knocking off the No. 2 Bulldogs (22-4), they now will face No. 1-ranked Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis (18-5), a 60-57 winner over DeSmet, in the state semifinal at 3 p.m. March 18.

As the Falcons left their locker room to celebrate on the court, Paige grabbed Monday and gave him a hug.

“This man,” he said, “I have 1,000 percent confidence in him, and so does everyone else on the team. And everyone who was watching.

“Man, I’ll never forget that 3-pointer (that gave Van Horn the lead). That basket is what Jaden Monday is all about.”

Van Horn's Brycen Dean (12) signals a 3-pointer as the bench erupts in celebration in the Falcons' 91-83 win over the second-ranked Bulldogs in a Class 5 state quarterfinal Friday.