MARION — If it had been a wintery Thursday night instead of 10 a.m. on a hot Tuesday at the end of June, the fact that Carterville and Mount Vernon were matched up on a neutral court for a girls basketball game surely would've drawn a lot more attention.
There were no stakes in their meeting as the first of 30 games at Marion's Summer Slam shootout, an event that isn't an actual tournament because wins aren't the goal and hardware isn't given out. There weren't even any scorebooks kept in this particular game.
And when the game tipped off — yes, the opening jump ball was back; players weren't wearing masks, either — there were only 11 fans in the Cuss Wilson Gymnasium bleachers, a number slightly inflated due to a Herrin fan who entered the wrong building and stayed for the first half.
With three other games, including Herrin playing Goreville and host Marion taking on Sesser-Valier, in the Health Education Center across the walkway, there was no fanfare on the big court even though the matchup featured teams that went a combined 25-2 in this past spring's unique shortened season.
And considering how last year went, just having summer basketball felt different.
"I think there's a new appreciation for just being able to be here," said Mount Vernon coach Jeff Lonnon. "It got taken away from everybody and as citizens of the United States, I'm not sure we ever thought that could happen. But it's been a lot of fun this past six or eight months when we got turned back loose."
Mount Vernon went undefeated in its 10 spring games, while Carterville went 14-2 and lost only to Nashville before dropping its final game against Anna-Jonesboro. Carterville also produced The Southern's Player of the Year in Alecia Doyle, who jumped the opening tip Tuesday against Mount Vernon's Macy Mount and then hit a pair of 3-pointers to push the Lady Lions out to a 10-0 lead.
Doyle was without her younger sister, Amayah, a key member of this past season's Carterville squad. But even in a few minutes against Mount Vernon, the elder Alecia showed her athleticism is not slowing down any time soon.
"She elevates so well on her shot and she's very tough to defend," said Carterville coach Todd Rogers. "Between last year's shortened season and this summer, she's become a really good floor leader and that's a position she's been working on. She's fun to watch."
The Lady Rams stormed back from their early deficit and took their first lead at 14-12 on a layup by Jacie Dees. Doyle hit two more shots after that and the game was tied at 17 when Mount Vernon went on a 14-0 run to finish the first half, a flurry that included a nifty spinning layup by DaZaria James, and the Lady Rams led 29-17 at the only break of a game that featured two 18-minute halves with mostly a running clock.
The last basket came on a layup by Macy Prosise at the buzzer after a mad scramble with both teams diving all over the floor after loose balls.
Dees put in another layup to start the second half and extend the run before a three-point play by Doyle stopped the run. But the Lady Rams kept the lead around double figures most of the second half and eventually finished off a 49-37 win.
"We have to turn the ball over defensively because we don't play half-court offense very well," Lonnon said. "So we have to let our defense give us extra possessions and we couldn't do that to them in the first half other than one little stretch."
Carterville's players seemed visibly upset about the loss and took out their frustrations in the HEC building with a 30-9 thrashing of Massac County during the next session. Mount Vernon also defeated Carterville during Benton's similar shootout event last week.
"It was a good game for us to have," Rogers said. "We played them in Benton and it was a good battle there, too. Jeff does a great job and they run their stuff really well. They dribble and drive and when you're driving and kicking and hitting 3-point shots, that's pretty tough to defend. You can't stop everything and they were hitting shots."
Mount Vernon's next game was a dandy against Hamilton County that went to sudden-death overtime.
The Lady Rams trailed most of the game before pulling within a point on a Dees layup with just under a minute remaining. Hamilton County led by three with 15.8 seconds left, but Jaci Elliott splashed in a 3-pointer for the Lady Rams to send it to overtime, where the first basket wins.
Mount Vernon won the tip and missed six straight shots, but used strong defense to keep its chances alive before Kennady Hayes drew a foul with a drive to the basket and made a free throw for the clinching point in a 33-32 victory.
"We're just trying to get better at every position," Lonnon said. "Summer time is a really important time to get your team better. When the season starts it's more of a polish deal with your timing and chemistry, but the summer is really when players get better skill-wise. I think that's the difference between the season and summer, so it's extremely important to play as many games as you can.
"We love to win but to me the scoreboard is an added stressor that isn't needed. The scoreboard is secondary."
Rogers echoed those feelings.
"We do have some people missing so this is an opportunity for us to see some kids play in game situations," he said. "I'm not a coach who cares about wins and losses in the summer. I'm trying to find out chemistry and trying to improve. And we've improved from where we started at our first team camp to here."
The Summer Slam event held all of its varsity games Tuesday but continues Wednesday with a six-hour slate of junior varsity games and finishes Thursday with junior high teams playing from 10 a.m. until around 7 p.m.