MOUNT PLEASANT — Coach Jason Atanasoff really didn’t need to give a pre-game pep talk to his Prairie School boys basketball team on Tuesday night.
The Hawks were more than psyched up for their 2017-2018 season opener.
After losing to Destiny 92-74 in a WIAA Division 4 sectional semifinal game last season, the Hawks eagerly embraced the opportunity to erase that bitter setback from their collective memory banks.
"That taste from a harsh loss to Destiny has stayed inside of us and we really wanted to get back on the court and prove ourselves this season," Hawks senior guard Buddy Ladwig said. "We were ready to play."
It was a good thing, too. The Hawks needed to play a quality game to stave off a young and surprisingly restless Case team 83-73 before a near-capacity crowd in the Case fieldhouse.
It was the second strong showing by the Eagles, who lost their season opener to Burlington 70-68 last Friday at Burlington.
"It stinks to be 0-2, but we played two really good teams," said Case’s first-year head coach Jake Berce, who doesn’t have a starter back from last year’s team. "We have to have a big-picture mentality and keep getting better and better."
Prairie, on the other hand, is a seasoned squad that has a legitimate shot of going to the state tournament. With four returning starters, the Hawks seemingly have all the ingredients for a special season, including a prime-time player.
In JC Butler, the Hawks have one of the elite players in the state. He enjoyed some monster games last season and he appears to be on his way to having a bunch of them again this season.
Butler, a 6-foot-4 senior shooting guard, was practically unstoppable during the game. That was especially true in the first six minutes of the game when he scored the Hawks’ first 15 points in giving them a 15-13 advantage.
Butler exhibited a diverse offensive game by scoring from various spots on the floor and in a variety ways, including a crowd-pleasing, high-flying dunk down the middle of the lane.
Butler finished the first half with 23 points and wound up with 41 in the game. He also grabbed a team-high nine rebounds.
"He’s a special player," Berce said of Butler, whose father, two-time NBA All-Star Caron Butler, cheered him on from his courtside seat. "We definitely had our hands full with him tonight."
Butler, who possesses a loud game but a quiet persona, said he intentionally went on the offensive early and often. But he also pointed out how his teammates were unselfish.
"I just tried to be aggressive because I know I play my best when I am aggressive," Butler said. "But give my teammates credit. They kept passing me the ball in the right spots and that helped a lot."
With Butler leading the way, Prairie moved to a 41-31 halftime lead. The Hawks then widened their lead to 59-45, thanks in large measure to senior guard Troy Mikaelian, who scored six of his 18 points in a two-minute stretch.
But the Eagles refused to succumb. Led by freshman JaKobe Thompson, they kept clawing their way back. Thompson’s 3-pointer pulled them within 71-68 with 2 minutes, 33 seconds remaining.
Thompson, a 6-foot guard, totaled 26 points — 16 in the second half.
"He’s already a leader at 15 years old," Berce said. "He pretty much put our team on his back in the second half."
But Ladwig responded with a cold-blooded 3-pointer from the left wing to extend Prairie’s lead to 74-68 with 2:22 to go and keep Case at bay.
"From all the work I put in over the summer and in our practices, I had all the confidence in the world I could make that shot," Ladwig said.
While Prairie had some tough stretches, it also had some exceptional ones that showed the Hawks will a tough out for any opponent this season.
Said Atanasoff: "We got a lot of work to do, but I thought we played pretty well for the first game."
Prairie 83, Case 73
Butler 16 13-19 41, Polzin 0 0-0 0, Krekling 3 1-2 7, May 0 0-0 0, Osiecki 3 3-4 9, Ladwig 2 2-2 8, Mikaelian 7 1-2 18. Totals 31 13-18 83.
Rankins 2 0-0 4, Farr 0 0-0 0, L. Schmidtmann 3 0-0 7, Thompson 9 2-3 25, Edmonson 2 0-0 5, Sardin 4 0-1 9, Fugiasco 3 0-0 7, Gilliam 4 1-2 9, Pulda 0 0-0 0, O. Schmidtmann 3 0-0 7, Carroll 0 0-0 0. Totals 30 3-6 73.
Halftime—Prairie 40, Case 31. 3-point goals—Butler 3, Ladwig 2, Mikaelian 3, Thompson 5, Edmonson, Sardin Fugiasco. Total fouls—Prairie 13, Case. Rebounds—Prairie 36 (Butler 9, Mikaelian 9), Case 32 (Rankins 6, Thompson 6).