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A comeback bid fell just short for the Vandalia Junior High eighth-grade boys basketball team after it erased as much as a 10-point deficit to finish within a single point in a loss to Hillsboro on Tuesday.
“It’s a learning curve,” said first-year coach Joe Schaal after the 41-40 loss. “We figured out that we can’t just show up. We have to show up and perform.”
The Vandals took that message to heart after halftime.
Combining the momentum from two baskets it used in the last 40 seconds of the first half to cut Hillsboro’s lead to 26-20 at halftime and an offensive adjustment to beat the Dragons’ press defense, Vandalia (1-2) outscored Hillsboro 13-9 in the third quarter.
More impressively, the Vandals had scoring contributions from six players – Ryan Bayles, Jake Bowen, Drake Dokey, Robbie Lott, Collin Nestleroad and Matt Rademacher – in that period. In the first half, only five Vandalia players scored.
“The effort was 10 times better in the second half, and that’s all I asked of these guys,” Schaal said.
The Vandals, however, got stuck in a rut to open the fourth quarter, missing four shots while allowing Hillsboro to build a 41-33 advantage before Nestleroad connected for a 3-pointer with 1:15 left in the game.
Moments later, Nestleroad stole the ball and broke away for a layup to move the Vandals within three of the lead.
With 24 seconds left, Lott netted two more points for Vandalia, but at the other end, the Vandals did not intentionally foul quickly enough, leaving the Dragons with a narrow victory.
While that is the lasting image from the game, Schaal said the team did itself in at the beginning after letting Hillsboro take an 8-0 lead just 1:30 into the game. He said that partly rests on his shoulders, since he had not yet strongly emphasized the press defense in practice.
The Vandals did follow that sour stretch with a 10-4 run of their own, but the Dragons scored 14 of the next 20 points before the Vandals made the two late second-quarter baskets.
“We got behind too early, and give them credit,” Schaal said. “Hillsboro is a good team.”
Though the season is just three games old, Schaal can already see some of the problem areas for his team.
“We have to learn (that) it takes five guys to rebound, and not just the two big guys inside,” he said, “especially since we’re not the biggest team in America.”
Four of Hillsboro’s first eight points in the contest came after an offensive rebound, and the Dragons grabbed a rebound off one of their missed free throws to give themselves a three-point possession in the second half.
But that issue is one that can be resolved. The drive and determination that can be difficult to teach is already ingrained in each player.
“We’ve got 11 guys who come in and compete every day, and we’ve got the 12th coming back (from injury) soon,” Schaal said. “We haven’t had anybody really standing out.
“We have 12 guys working together as a team.”