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GREENVILLE – Vandalia’s eighth-grade boys basketball team understands the value of free throws.
At least they better, with as often as coach Nick Casey preaches the importance of those shots.
James Taylor hit a pair of free throws with 21.9 seconds left in last Thursday’s Class 3A regional championship game against Greenville to give Vandalia a three-point lead, and the defense held strong to force a bad shot on the last possession of a 41-38 victory.
“Big,” Casey said. “Big free throws.
“We tell them all year in practice that free throws can win or lose a ball game, and they won it tonight.”
It was the second straight regional championship for the group, which dispatched Greenville, 30-27, in the seventh-grade regional title game last year.
And with the win, Vandalia advanced to Wednesday’s sectional game in its home gym for another rematch.
The Jr. Vandals (18-3) played Southwestern, (22-2) which beat Vandalia, 44-37, in last season’s sectional game.
Wednesday’s winner advances to the state tournament, with the first-round game being held on Saturday at 2:30 p.m. at Unity Junior High in Tolono.
Down by four at Greenville, Ethan Bayles pulled the Jr. Vandals back ahead, making a 3-pointer and a jumper to give Vandalia a 39-38 lead with 1:12 left in the game.
“I put Ethan Bayles out there because he is a good shooter, and they were going to leave him open on the wing,” Casey said. “I told him if he got open to let her fly, and he made two.”
Nine seconds later, Vandalia’s tight defense led Greenville into a back-court violation, and the Jr. Vandals were fouled twice to get Taylor to the line for a one-and-one.
He sank both shots, and Greenville called a timeout with 14.4 seconds left in the game.
Coming out of the break, the Jr. Vandals swarmed Greenville’s best 3-point shooter, and forced an off-balance shot in the waning seconds.
“He got the ball, but it was a contested shot,” Casey said. “If he makes it, he makes it, but he missed it.
“It wasn’t wide open, and our plan was to make it tough on him.”
Nathan Casey led the Jr. Vandals with 12 points – including three 3-pointers, and Marcus Zimmerman added 11 points and six rebounds.
Garrett McNary had a strong game from the point guard position, dishing out seven assists, grabbing two steals and making the first 3-pointer of the game.
Two of Casey’s 3-pointers came in the first quarter, and a second-chance layup by Zimmerman on the last possession of the period gave Vandalia a 15-7 lead.
Greenville, however, cut down that lead throughout the second quarter, and eventually took a one-point lead to halftime.
“They got us in a half-court game, and we’re as good at half court as we are at full court,” Nick Casey said. “We got a few turnovers, rebounds and outlets (in the third quarter), and that kind of got us going.
“Our kids were diving on the floor,” he said. “They wanted it, so their effort was key.”
Greenville took its first lead of the game with a 3-pointer with 34 seconds left in the first, and nearly extended that lead when another 3-pointer rolled off of the rim as time expired.
The Jr. Blue Jays used an 8-1 run to open the second half and take their biggest lead of the game, but a 3-pointer by Nathan Casey and field goals by Taylor and Zimmerman helped Vandalia cut that lead to three by the start of the fourth quarter.
The momentum continued for the Jr. Vandals, who opened the final period on a 5-0 run, but that was followed by a 6-0 run for Greenville to set up Vandalia’s comeback.
Thursday, Feb. 6
Points: Casey, 12; Zimmer, 11; Taylor, 8; Bayles, 5; McNary, 3; Nic Wollerman, 2.
Rebounds: Zimmerman, 6; Taylor, 4; Bayles, 3; Casey, 3; Wollerman, 3; McNary, 2; Team, 2; Cameron Gelsinger, 1; Dead-ball, 1.
Assists: McNary, 7; Casey, 2; Gelsinger, 1.
Steals: McNary, 2; Zimmerman, 2; Bayles, 1; Casey, 1; Taylor, 1.
Block: Casey, 1.