MUSCATINE — The Northeast Rebels didn't hide their emotions this weekend, shedding tears and exchanging hugs on the court at Muscatine High School after falling just short of a state basketball berth with a 55-46 loss to Wapello on Saturday night.
It certainly was a battle for the chance at the state tournament.
"They're just tough kids and they're competitors," Northeast coach Travis Eversmeyer said. "We knew they weren't going to give up on us, we just needed to make a few big plays and have some guys step up. That just didn't happen."
While Northeast was coming off their first district championship in a decade, Wapello had only recorded one loss this entire season.
"Tonight, we played some pretty big time defense and we had some kids hit some crucial shots," Wapello coach Ken Spielbauer said. "It really just comes down to getting a shot here or there, or a timely rebound here or there.
"We had very good defense to guard those big guys like we did."
The Rebels could tell it was going to be a battle from the get-go, with the Indians answering every point made in the first quarter. Thanks to a big eight points from senior Luke Empen, the Rebels came out of the first eight minutes with the 10-9 advantage.
A couple of dagger threes in the second quarter switched the game around.
"I told them to keep shooting, because the shots we missed early would go in," Spielbauer said. "We have good shooters."
The Indians drained six 3-pointers throughout the game, and three of them came in the second quarter while the Rebels only put up eight points.
That wasn't the only harm done. The Indians were able to beat the Rebels down the floor multiple times for easy baskets.
Northeast found themselves trailing 26-18 at half.
"We just wanted to get it within five going into the fourth quarter, we thought we'd have a good shot," Eversmeyer said. "We wanted to get some stops here and there, start with down screens so our guards could get open on the wing. Once we started setting the down screens, we had good opportunities to get the ball inside."
Coming out of the half, Northeast battled back and got as close as two in the third quarter thanks in part to a three from sophomore Trey McAleer, a jumper from Dawson Stoll and big baskets from Braeden Hoyer and Empen. However, a foul, a fast break, an offensive rebound and a 3-point play all helped the Indians put together an 8-0 run.
"They beat us a couple of times with us not getting back on defense, and that's uncharacteristic play from us," Empen said. "Our game plan was to break the press, run offense and control the tempo. They're a run and gun team, and if we try to play to their speed we can't keep up."
By the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Wapello Indians had extended their lead to 12, but the Rebels were ready. Collin Swanton took in to the lane and drew a foul, sining one and then Empen took a charge on the defensive end to give the ball back to Northeast.
Braeden Hoyer pulled down the offensive rebound and drew the foul, sinking one. That cut the lead to 46-36 in favor of Wapello with 5:30 remaining in the game.
"They capitalized on every mistake we made," Eversmeyer said. "We turned it over, they scored. They got an offensive rebound, they scored. We just didn't do the things we're used to doing."
Northeast forced a turnover and couldn't utilize it, but then forced another turnover that ended in Swanton finding a wide open Empen across the lane to cut the lead to single digits.
Another turnover from the Northeast D and Swanton took it to the rim. The Indians saw their lead dwindle to 46-40 with four minutes left.
A pair of free throws on the Wapello end took it back to eight, but then Dawson Stoll found the rim for two. A few possessions later Empen powered it up to cut it to a 48-44 lead with under two minutes to go.
That would be as close as the Rebels would get.
Empen led the Rebels with 18 points, while Swanton drove in another 12. Braeden Hoyer had seven and Stoll put up four.
Wapello's Trenton Massner led all scorers with 25 points n the night. Logan Belzer also reached double digits with 11 and forward Keaton Mitchell had nine.
For the head coaches of both squads, there was an added element. Coach Ken Spielbauer was Wapello's coach when Travis Eversmeyer played.
"It's hard," Spielbauer said. "I've done it before with other players but it's really hard, especially with someone I care about."
And Eversmeyer. "He's done so much for me it's just ridiculous. I have a great emotional attachment to him. I'm obviously distraught for our guys and our fans but that guy is a big deal, and I wish him the best."
Northeast finishes the season with a record of 19-6. The loss marked the end of the prep basketball careers of Collin Swanton, Luke Empen and Matthew French.
"It's hard after they put in that much time," Eversmeyer said. "They had an outstanding offseason and a lot of people were doubting them because they lost seven seniors last year. To be on the verge of state tournament, I can't say enough about them."