The Lady Vandals' disappointment was palpable Thursday as they walked off the court following a 57-46 setback to state-ranked Pana.
For good reason.
They had just watched the Lady Panthers escape VCHS with a victory for the third straight time, doing so, once again, by rallying from a second-half deficit.
But as the team emerged from the locker room after taking a moment to let their first setback of the season sink in, a sense of pride and optimism was just as evident.
"We're disappointed we didn't win, but we're pleased with the effort," said VCHS coach Mike Butler. "That's what we told them in there after the game. As long as the effort is there, this team's going to win a lot of games."
The up-and-coming Lady Vandals certainly had plenty of fight against a team many feel will advance to the Class 2A state tournament.
VCHS gave Pana all it could handle despite an off shooting night, battling back from a nine-point first half deficit to take a 35-33 lead on a Laura Hobbie putback midway through the third quarter.
But Pana all-stater Olivia Lett and her capable supporting cast were too tough the rest of the way, outscoring Vandalia 20-9 in the game's final 91/2 minutes.
A Rachelle Harbert 3-pointer with 1:25 remaining in the third quarter gave Pana a 40-37 lead it would not relinquish. Marial Alde added to that lead moments later with an awkward bank shot, setting up a frustrating finish to the third quarter, as the Lady Vandals were unable to get a couple makeable shots and two controversial calls to go their way in the final seconds.
Pana proceeded to go on a 14-5 fourth quarter run, pulling away to a deceiving margin of victory.
Along with shaky shooting, the Pana duo of Olivia Lett and Amy Radford proved too much for the Lady Vandals to overcome.
Lett was held in check, relatively speaking, as she scored 23 points. But the SIU-Carbondale recruit created a number of easy shots for her teammates off the dribble, finishing with five assists.
"Probably the one thing we didn't do as well as we wanted to is stop her penetration," Butler said. "If she gets in the lane with the ball, she's going to score or dish it off. That hurt us at times."
Radford, a legit 6-footer, added 12 points and 12 rebounds.
The Lady Vandals couldn't get a shot to drop early, hitting on just 3 of their first 13 from the field, helping Pana establish control for a majority of the first half.
Vandalia shot just 34 percent from the floor for the game.
"We just made some mistakes and didn't finish a couple shots," Butler said.
Pana appeared to be on cruise con rol late in the first half, leading 29-20 with a minute to go. But Hobbie and Cassie Warner converted two free throws apiece in the final 43 seconds to pull Vandalia to within five, 29-24, at halftime.
The Vandals then quickly drew even with the Lady Panthers with a 7-2 spurt to start the second half. Shelby Cearlock completed Vandalia's comeback with a three-point play off a fast break.
"That showed some character, I think," said Butler of the comeback. "It would have been easy to get down to a team like this early and just fold up, but they didn't. They battled back."
Unfortunately, Pana showed why its so highly regarded the rest of the way.
"They're not ranked high because they're not a good team," Butler said. "They're an excellent team. I think we played right with them until the last three minutes or so.
Hobbie led Vandalia with 12 points and eight rebounds, while Cearlock had 10 points and five boards. Julianna Banal chipped in seven points, three rebounds and three assists, but it wasn't enough for the Lady Vandals to remain undefeated.
"We knew we weren't going to win them all," Butler said. "And I'd rather lose this game playing hard and being in the ballgame than to lose to somebody maybe we didn't feel was as good as us and not had a good effort."
Pana also took the JV contest, 59-40. Tori Hagy, Kayla Houston and Brittney led Vandalia with eight points apiece.
Pana 13 16 13 15 - 57
Vandalia 7 17 13 9 - 46
Vandalia scoring - Walton 3-6 0-2 6, Durbin 1-2 0-0 2, Hobbie 5-16 2-4 12, Cearlock 3-9 3-4 10, Banal 3-11 1-2 7, Shields 1-2 0-0 2, Warner 2-7 2-2 7. Totals 18-53 9-15 46.
3-pointers - Vandalia 1 (Warner), Pana 2 (Harbert, Lett). Rebounds - Vandalia 22 (Hobbie 8, Cearlock 5), Pana 29 (Radford 12, Lett 7). Turnovers - Vandalia 8, Pana 17.
Breese Central 41,
The defending Class A state champions used six 3-pointers to hand the visiting Lady Vandals their second straight defeat to a high-caliber opponent.
Hobbie had 11 points and nine rebounds to lead the Lady Vandals, while Warner and Cearlock added seven apiece. The JV Lady Vandals also fell, 59-20.
Both teams will return to action Thursday at Cowden-Herrick.
Vandalia 9 7 5 10 - 31
Central 4 15 8 14 - 41
Vandalia scoring - Hobbie 11, Cearlock 7, Warner 7, Walton 4, Banal 2.