State stumble

Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter The Mercer Island High School boys basketball team searches for answers during a time-out. -
Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter The Mercer Island High School boys basketball team searches for answers during a time-out.
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Mercer Island boys basketball team gets bounced in two games

Matt Phelps
Mercer Island Reporter

The fog that descended over Key Arena in Seattle on Thursday morning was not confined to the outside of the building. That fog seemed to engulf one of the best squads in the state. The 2007-08 season for Mercer Island boys basketball came to a halt in a 52-48 loss to Meadowdale as the Islanders never seemed to get on track during the state tournament.

“Everyone was disappointed,” said Mercer Island coach Ed Pepple. “We didn’t play our best basketball.”

The Islanders also lost their first-round game to Columbia River, 60-42.

“The kids admitted they went into it a little cocky,” said Pepple. “They didn’t really respect Columbia River, and they were the best team in southwest Washington.”

As a result, Mercer Island fell out of the strategies that they had put into practice all season.

“We didn’t play as a team, and as a result we had to play catch up,” said Islander Matt Schut.

The Islanders fell behind to Columbia River, 16-5, during the first quarter and never fully recovered. Mercer Island kept pace with its opponent during the second and third quarters but never built any momentum. Pepple said that the game was like a bad dream.

“We had the talent to be competitive with anyone,” said Pepple. “As a coach, I failed to get them to play with the same fire they had all season.”

One place where the Islanders struggled during the game was getting to the line. Columbia River took 33 free throws while Mercer Island settled for just nine. That trend was the same during play as the Islanders took 40 less shots overall.

“We just didn’t shoot well or make good decisions,” said Pepple.

When the Islanders did get shots off, many of them missed the basket.

“It was a great privilege, and we were excited to play in the Key,” said Schut. “But the depth perception of having all of those seats behind the basket threw us off a bit. In a high school gym, you just have a wall behind the hoop.”

Mercer Island senior Drew Sexton led the Islanders with 14 points, while senior Leroy Lutu had 10.

“We thought coming in that we would be playing on Saturday night [in the finals],” said Lutu, who plans to play basketball in college. “To lose the first game was really difficult. It was tough to come out and play after that.”

The hangover from the loss to Columbia River hurt Mercer Island during the first quarter of their game against Meadowdale. An 11-5 advantage by the Mavericks during the first quarter was a haunting reminder of the team’s first-round game. But the team pulled out of its funk during the third quarter by outscoring Meadowdale by nine points. A two-point lead with five minutes remaining in the game didn’t seem like much for the Islanders to cling to, and it wasn’t enough. Rebound after rebound fell into the hands of Maverick players as the team went on a 7-0 run to close out the contest.

“We came in with really low spirits,” said Schut. “But we wanted to win the game so we could play a few more times together.”

That bond has been sighted by Pepple as one of the strongest he has seen in the program. Following the final game, the entire team went to lunch together and most of the players came back to Key Arena to watch more of the remaining teams play.

“This is an amazing group of guys, and they set the bar high,” said Pepple.

Sexton led the Islanders against the Mavericks with 22 points, while Lutu put in 14. Sexton’s performance was punctuated by his six three-pointers. But the defining moment for Sexton during the tournament came during warm-ups prior to the Columbia River game.

“I remember when Paul Morse and I were ball boys for the [2002 state team], being out there and watching Duke Biggers, Kevin Tempest and Brandon Burmeister,” said Sexton. “When I saw Kyle and Stephen Huber, the current team’s ball boys, I thought, ‘That was me.’ Hopefully they will get here too.”

The tradition that is Mercer Island basketball and the fans that support the teams will not forget the 2007-2008 Islanders. The team had a rare undefeated season in 3A KingCo, going 16-0 and beating archrival Bellevue twice. The Islanders also won the KingCo tournament.

“Going 16-0 is a difficult thing to do,” said Sexton. “We put a banner up on the gymnasium wall and I am very proud of that.”

The Islanders were also the only team from 3A KingCo to advance to state from districts.

As for next year, the Islanders will turn over nearly their entire lineup. The team will have nearly as many seniors as this year’s squad but no varsity experience.

“We will definitely have size next year but not as much scoring from the wings,” said Pepple. “But every year it is different. No two teams are the same.”

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