OTTUMWA — The past 48 hours were a cold reminder of the circumstances surrounding a season played in the midst of a pandemic.
The Ottumwa boys basketball team, loaded with talent and poised to make a run at the program's best season in almost two decades, found themselves ravaged instantly by exposure to COVID-19. With six players and head coach Neil Hartz in quarantine, the Bulldogs fell for the first time this season as Mount Pleasant pressed their way to a 58-47 win on Tuesday at Evans Middle School Gymnasium over a team that had very little time to prepare with players who were thrust into the varsity line-up.
"The guys were fine. The senior leaders were upbeat coming in. They were very confident during the first four minutes," said Kyle Creamer, who was Ottumwa's acting head coach on Tuesday. "We had guys out there that are not part of the varsity team. They've been part of the varsity team for about half-a-day. The three seniors really helped bring them along.
"We knew we were going to make some mistakes. We were just going to have to live with that and play through it."
Lucas Barnes set a positive tone for the short-handed Bulldogs, causing Mount Pleasant turnovers on the first two Panther possessions. Blessing Gbambo, who like Barnes was filling in as a new starter on Tuesday replacing normal starters Joe Hammer and Trae Swartz, drilled an early 3-pointer as Ottumwa jumped out to a 7-2 lead.
"All we could do was give a good effort. That was all we could do," Ottumwa senior Matt Graeve said. "We just wanted to see where it went. At the start, it went well."
Graeve scored eight of his game-high 17 points in the first quarter as the Bulldogs built a 15-8 lead over the Panthers. Mount Pleasant (2-2) then turned up the pressure on Ottumwa, testing several Bulldogs that were thrust into significant varsity playing time.
The result was a struggle for Ottumwa to hang on to the basketball. The Bulldogs committed 19 turnovers in the game, including nine in the third quarter, as the Panthers outscored OHS 17-6 in the second quarter to build a 25-21 halftime lead.
"Trying to break a press with new guys that don't know how to run our press break was probably the biggest difference," Ottumwa senior Kie Glosser said.
Glosser kicked off the first half with consecutive field goals, including a steal and a lay-up in the opening minute of the third quarter that tied the score at 25-25. Graeve would score inside to put OHS up 27-25 as the Bulldogs racked up six straight points in 76 seconds.
It was another moment of resilience for the Bulldogs. In the end, moments were all Ottumwa had as Mount Pleasant continued to operate with more confidence on both ends of the court resulting in 10 steals and four different players scoring in double figures for the Panthers.
Brevin Wilson, who finished with 14 points and four assists, put Mount Pleasant ahead for good answering a go-ahead jumper by Gbambo with a lay-up to put the Panthers up 30-29. Jack Johnson stole a pass on an inbounds at mid-court by OHS and dribbled to the corner for a 3-pointer as Mount Pleasant scored 14 of the final 18 points in the third quarter to build a 41-33 lead.
"We basically had one hour to prepare for their pressure. The five guys on the floor for us haven't played together, ever," Creamer said. "We were basically flying by the seat of our pants. We had a couple key turnovers and got out of our offensive rhythm.
Owen Vansickle led Mount Pleasant with 15 points while Johnson added 11 off the bench for the Panthers. Ottumwa cut an 18-point lead in half late in the game with their own pressure defense that sparked a 12-3 run capped by a Glosser 3-pointer to close out a 14-point night with under two minutes left.
"You learn on the fly. Experience is how you learn," Creamer said. "Hopefully, we can take everything we learned from this night and get better."
The players that suited up on Tuesday for Ottumwa will be back on the court preparing for a trip Saturday to Fort Dodge. It is unclear at this time, including to members of the Bulldog boys basketball team, if the Bulldogs will be closer to full strength at that point.
"We're going to Fort Dodge and we're definitely going with the guys we've got in the locker room," Creamer said.