Senior Keyon Mahaney woke up Saturday, Nov. 16 on a time crunch. It wasn’t a matter of running late. Rather, it was an emotional impulse.
There was little time to reflect on the events of the previous night, when, alongside fellow seniors Lane Cook and Zach Watkins, he played his final prep football game in Mexico’s red and grey, a loss in the Class 3 District 4 championship.
Whatever emotions stirred from that night had to be put on hold.
Mahaney, Cook and Watkins had to do what five other members of the football team also did that day: prepare for basketball practice.
Nov. 3 was the first day that high school basketball teams could officially practice, but Mexico coach Darren Pappas didn’t have his entire team together until almost two weeks later. Pappas had three days to prepare the Bulldogs for their jamboree.
It’s a reality that Pappas has accepted in his third year at Mexico and a task he and the team were prepared for.
“I think they’ve accepted the challenge and we’ve continued to work on bits and pieces of it every single day,” Pappas said. “Then (we) try to put it all together at the end.”
The Bulldogs have received mixed results since Pappas’ arrival in June 2017. Mexico went 14-12 in his first season with a team that featured nine seniors. Last season, the Bulldogs fell to 7-16 and lost in the first round of districts for the fourth year in a row. This time it came in a 71-56 loss to Kirksville.
Last season was a rebuilding year due to the youth within the program.
Mexico went from nine seniors to four and relied on players getting their first major playing time at the varsity level. It showed in late-game situations. The Bulldogs went 5-13 in games decided by 10 or fewer points last season. Mexico finished the year 1-4 in its last five games, which were decided by an average of 4.75 points.
“Toward the end of the year we were playing our best basketball,” Pappas said. “We just couldn’t finish games.”
The Bulldogs took their lumps, but there is optimism it will help them in the long run — even though they lost 28.5 points per game, or 51% of last season’s offense, with graduating seniors. This includes last season’s leading scorer, Jai Lawson (14.1 ppg).
Mexico returns two of its other top three scorers from last season: Isaiah Reams (11.1 ppg) and Watkins (7.6 ppg). The Bulldogs get Mahaney back after he missed the 2018-19 season due to a foot fracture.
Pappas gave the keys to Reams last season and the point guard became his floor general. Reams led the team in 3-point percentage (42%), was second behind Lawson in assists per game (2.8) and finished third in field-goal percentage (55%).
“There was definitely a lot of pressure,” Reams said of last season. “I had to really be responsible for the team and this year I hope to spread the ball more and help my team score, too.”
Mahaney’s return this season allows Reams to shift to a combo guard and focus more on scoring and less on distributing. With Reams off the ball, he will be more involved in spacing the floor and running off screens. He attempted 95 threes last season, and with added ball handlers, he should be able to take more this season because the rest of the returners went 15-for-78 (19.2%) from deep last year.
“His name is out there now,” Pappas said. “So it’s going to be a little bit tougher. There’s going to be different teams that are going to key in on him.”
Responsibility falls on Mahaney, juniors Ty Prince and Raef Yager as well as sophomore Michael White to help with perimeter scoring this season. Each of them saw expanded roles last season, and Pappas expects them to take a step forward this year.
“They’ve learned from those experiences,” Pappas said. “We can go back and show them the film and break that down. We can look at things that we did really well and the things that we need to improve on to continue to build on those situation type things as we progress through the season.”
The Bulldogs are scheduled to open against Centralia at 11 p.m. Friday in the Norm Stewart Classic at Mizzou Arena.