DES MOINES — Like several of his teammates, Nathan Moeller walked into the postgame interview room Monday afternoon and had tears running down his cheeks.
There was disappointment the season had just concluded, but the 6-foot-4 junior had no difficulty expressing the joy this journey brought to him and the Clinton Prince of Peace boys basketball program.
“It has been the greatest experience of my life,” Moeller said. “When I’m a dad, I’m going to be telling my kids about this. I’m going to be showing them pictures, showing them videos of us playing.
“It is like a dream.”
The dream ended a couple games shy of the ultimate goal for the Irish, making its first state tournament appearance since it was Clinton Mater Dei in 1994.
Spencer Schorg tallied a game-high 19 points to propel Remsen St. Mary’s past Prince of Peace 58-55 in a Class 1A state quarterfinal at Wells Fargo Arena.
“Fun doesn’t describe it,” Irish senior Kaidion Larson said. “This is the best team I’ve ever played on. I’ve never really been on a winning team except my sophomore year. We just came together.”
Prince of Peace (20-4) overcame a 10-point deficit in the second half to grab a 55-54 lead with 69 seconds left. The Irish couldn’t finish it.
Schorg converted two free throws with 45 seconds remaining and Brayden Ricke added two more foul shots to help the Hawks reach the semifinals for the third consecutive season.
Sixth-seeded and unranked St. Mary’s, which meets another Tri-Rivers Conference foe in the semifinals in Alburnett, has no seniors on its roster.
“We’re right where we want to be,” Schorg said. “This team just knows how to win. We may be the underdogs, but all of us just keep fighting.”
Prince of Peace showed plenty of grit.
With sickness running through the team last week — forcing one day of practice to be called off — and little depth, coach Gerry Murphy felt his team was sucking wind in the first half.
The Irish missed several shots around the basket. St. Mary’s beat them to loose balls and rebounds to snatch a 32-25 halftime lead. The margin swelled to 10 points midway through the third quarter.
“We were so tight,” senior Patrick Mulholland said. “We were very nervous on the big stage, big crowd, all the media and cameras. It really got to us, and those missed bunnies obviously hurt us down the stretch.”
Still, Prince of Peace mounted a rally behind four players in double figures.
Larson, who had a team-high 16 points, made a pull-up jumper to draw the Irish within a point with 2 ½ minutes left. He knocked down two free throws a minute later to give Prince of Peace its first lead since late in the first quarter.
“When Kaidion made those two free throws, I had real hope we were going to pull it off,” Mulholland said.
Schorg had other ideas.
After making three 3-pointers earlier in the half, Schorg was fouled by Michael Matthew and made two free throws.
Prince of Peace set up a play for Larson on the ensuing possession. As he posted up, St. Mary’s ran two defenders at him and poked the ball away, recovered it and was fouled.
“I wanted to post him up and do my signature drop step, but it didn’t work out,” Larson said. “The plan was to get me (isolated) and to score.”
Brayden Ricke pushed St. Mary’s lead to three with 25 seconds left. Prince of Peace had a chance to even the game, but Larson’s 3-point try was off.
Ricke was fouled and missed both free throws. Larson couldn’t get a 3-point attempt off as Schorg fouled him with 2.5 seconds remaining. He missed the one-and-one. St. Mary’s rebounded it and ran out the clock.
“In the second half, we forgot about everything and just played,” Murphy said. “We were a lot more aggressive. I thought we stood around and watched a lot of plays in the first half where they got buckets and second-chance shots. We were out-hustled in the first half.
“The second half, we rallied, were scrappy and played a lot harder.”
The difference came from the 3-point line. St. Mary’s was 7 of 13 while Prince of Peace was 2 of 12.
“That’s a good offense, very fundamentally sound,” Mulholland said. “They always go for the best shot and don’t force bad ones.
“They deserved to win that game.”
In addition to Larson, Moeller finished with a dozen points and eight rebounds. Matthew and Mulholland each chipped in 11 points.
Prince of Peace, ranked 350th out of 359 Iowa schools in enrollment, graduates its entire starting lineup with the exception of Moeller.
“This is a special group, one that loves playing the game and wants to be in the gym,” Murphy said.
“I was extremely proud of this group and the way they battled. They showed the younger kids this is how you’re supposed to do it. It is a great group of guys, and I’m going to miss them.”