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Ramblers shooting for history, revenge vs. H-BR

It’s not often a Class 1A basketball game is moved to a bigger venue because of attendance concerns.

But after Hinckley-Big Rock and Mooseheart’s regular-season game at Hinckley saw the gymnasium fill up more than 30 minutes before gametime, the IHSA decided to move the Class 1A Westminster Christian Regional final between the two teams to nearby Judson University.

H-BR, which garnered a 58-51 victory over Mooseheart in December, hopes to capture the school’s second straight regional title.

“We’ve just got to play our game,” H-BR senior guard Bernie Conley said. “We need to get out in transition so they can’t set up because it’s hard to see over those long arms, tall players.”

Those tall players are high-profile South Sudanese transfer students Akim Nyang, Makur Puou and Mangisto Deng, all standing above 6 feet, 7 inches.

In their first season with Mooseheart, they’ve helped the Ramblers turn around a program that hasn’t had much success on the court. Mooseheart won a district title in 1964 but never has won what now is called a regional championship.

“I don’t know, culturally, if they understand what we’re into,” Mooseheart coach Ron Ahrens said. “I tell them, you know what, 100 years we’ve been at Mooseheart, we want to win a regional title. I don’t know if they necessarily understand. They’re just going to go out and play basketball.”

Second-seeded Mooseheart (23-5) and top-seeded H-BR (24-4) both are enjoying banner seasons, with some intertwined history.

H-BR reached out to the IHSA to question the agency that placed Nyang, Puou and Deng at Mooseheart, and the IHSA temporarily stripped the trio’s eligibility before the IHSA Board of Directors voted to overturn the decision and allow the boys – ranging in height from 6-7 to 7-1 – to compete. That happened in mid-December, less than a week after the Royals closed the game on a 13-0 run to rally past Mooseheart.

In the first meeting with H-BR, senior guard Jared Madden burned Mooseheart in the fourth quarter and a flurry of late turnovers exposed Mooseheart’s ball-handling vulnerabilities under duress.

Despite Mooseheart’s typically massive size advantage, Ahrens knows playing a well-schooled, veteran team that can shoot will be a huge challenge.

“They’re the best in our area,” Ahrens said after Mooseheart’s 45-30 win against Westminster Christian in Wednesday’s semifinal. “I just counted it up tonight, they have 11 seniors, I thought it was nine. They play good team basketball together, they play hard.”

• Steve Nitz contributed to this report.

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