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In many ways, the Vandalia boys basketball team's postseason opener paralleled its regular-season journey.
Rough start. Strong finish.
That latter fact considered, it's a shame a Vandals team that was just finding its identity saw its season end with a heartbreaking 48-47 loss to SCC-East rival Pana Monday in the opening round of the Shelbyville Class 2A Regional.
The Vandals (5-23) bounced back from an unsightly opening quarter and a first-half deficit that stood at 12 points at one juncture to take its first lead of the game on a Brenden Wasmuth 3-pointer three minutes into the second half.
A back-and-forth battle ensued, as the lead changed hands 10 times in the final 13 minutes.
Unfortunately, the final lead change went in the Panthers' favor, thanks to a fluke play with about 40 seconds to go.
A loose ball in the backcourt was deflected into the hands of T.J. Rice, who found a wide-open Justin Vernon downcourt for a go-ahead layup.
The Vandals took a timeout with 16 seconds left to set up a potential game-winning play, but they were unable to get off a clean shot as time expired.
"We came out real strong there at the start of the second half and got back in the game," VCHS coach Kevin Jackson said. "Both teams battled. Unfortunately, we weren't able to get a shot down at the end."
Vandalia entered the postseason winners of three of its last four regular-season games, with the only loss coming in triple overtime at Roxana.
Coupled with the fact that the Vandals had beaten Pana just two days prior - not to mention regular-season victories over potential semifinal opponent Shelbyville and potential championship-game opponent Staunton - and a serious postseason run seemed possible.
Such aspirations would have seemed as outlandish at the start the season as a comeback from a 16-5 first-quarter deficit.
But, as they did throughout the final third of the 2007-08 season, the Vandals showed they are a much better team than the overwhelmed, inexperienced group that took the court at the season-opening St. Anthony Tournament.
"Early on, that (big deficit) would have been a big deterance," Jackson said. "And that was solely because of inexperience, knowing really what we wanted and being able execute it."
The Vandals made just 2 of 7 from the field to go along with seven turnovers in the first eight minutes.
"It wasn't a very good first quarter," Jackson said. "We dug ourselves a pretty good hole in that first quarter."
But the play of Drew Bell, who scored 16 of his career-high 23 points in the first half on 6 for 6 shooting from the field and 4 of 4 shooting from the foul line, had the Vandals trailing by just five, 24-19, at halftime.
"That was probably one of the poorer halves we've played in quite some time, but we were still right in the ballgame," Jackson said.
The Vandals closed the half strong, however, and it carried over to the start of the second half, as buckets by Mitch Johnson and Wasmuth capped a 10-1 run, pulling the Vandals to within a point of the lead, 24-23.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Dylan Durr and Wasmuth then gave Vandalia its first lead, 29-28, at the 5:22 mark of the third.
Pana responded to the Vandals' resurgence, however, as neither team managed to take control the rest of the way.
Vandalia enjoyed its biggest lead of the fourth quarter, 45-42, with 2:34 to go after Bell found Mitch Johnson inside to cap a 6-0 Vandals spurt.
But Frank Schmitz countered with a tough turnaround jumper inside and, after a Bell free throw, Colten Waddington tied the game at 46 by hitting from an impossible angle inside with 1:40 to go.
The Vandals re-took the lead, 47-46, after Wasmuth hit the front end of a one-and-one opportunity with just over a minute to go.
Bell then nearly forced a turnover at midcourt, as both teams scrambled for the loose ball. It wound up bouncing into Rice's hands, unfortunately, setting up what would prove to be the game-winning assist.
Vandalia still had plenty of time to counter, as Mitch Johnson got a decent look on a baseline jumper. But Pana defender covered Johnson like a glove, and the senior did not get the foul call as his shot was deflected and the buzzer sounded.
It was a frustrating way for Johnson and Wasmuth's careers to end, but Jackson credited both of the Vandals' seniors for persevering through some tough times and - ultimately - doing their part to make the Vandals a much better team than they were at the start of the season.
"Unfortunately, that's the nature of the business - you're going to have kids come and go," Jackson said. "They're two quality individuals, without question.
"They've come to practice every day and done their part. I hope my two sons grow up to be quality individuals like those two guys are."
Johnson finished with 12 points in his final game, while Wasmuth had seven. Wasmuth averaged 15.5 ppg over his final seven games.
Bell finished 9 of 15 from the field and 5 of 6 from the line, in addition to grabbing six offensive rebounds and dishing out five assists. The junior guard averaged just under 16 ppg in VCHS's final six games, and is just one reason the Vandals should be on the upswing in 2008-09 after a rough 07-08 campaign.
Fellow junior Austin Wollerman, sophomores Dylan Durr and Will Cowger, and freshman Marty Johnson are all set to return next year after gaining valuable experience.
Monday's Box Score
Vandalia 5 14 16 12 - 47
Pana 16 8 12 12 - 48
Vandalia scoring - Bell 9-15 5-6 23, Cowger 0-2 0-0 0, Durr 2-3 0-0 5, Ma. Johnson 0-1 0-2 0, Mi. Johnson 5-11 2-2 12, Wasmuth 2-9 2-4 7. Totals 18-43 9-14 47.
Pana scoring - Ade 2-5 0-0 5, Beyers 0-0 1-2 1, Lesser 1-1 0-0 2, Maziarz 1-3 0-0 3, Schmitz 7-12 1-1 15, Vernon 4-8 0-0 8, Waddington 7-10 0-0 14. Totals 22-45 2-5 48.
3-point goals - Vandalia 2 (Durr, Wasmuth), Pana 2 (Ade, Maziarz). Rebounds - Vandalia 20 (Bell 7, Ma. Johnson 5), Pana 25 (Schmitz 10). Turnovers - Vandalia 18, Pana 19. Record - Vandalia finishes 5-23, 2-8 in SCC East.
In sharp contrast to Monday's regional tilt pitting the same two teams, an outstanding opening quarter propelled the Vandals to victory in their final regular-season game.
The Vandals enjoyed a 10-point margin, 21-11, after one quarter of play, and extended to a 12-point lead, 34-22, at halftime.
Pana made a valiant push in the fourth quarter, outscoring the Vandals 21-12, but Vandalia managed to hold on.
Bell and Wasmuth continued their scoring binges, leading the Vandals with 17 and 11 points, respectively. Freshman Marty Johnson added 10 points off the bench.
Schmitz and Waddington combined to score 43 points for the Panthers, but they got little support from their teammates.
The JV Vandals took the preliminary contest by the same score as the varsity tilt, closing out their season with an 8-8 record.
Vandalia 21 13 13 12 - 59
Pana 11 11 13 21 - 56
Vandalia scoring - Bell 7 3-4 17, Cowger 2 2-5 6, Durr 3 0-0 9, Ma. Johnson 5 0-0 10, Mi. Johnson 2 0-0 4, Osorio 0 0-0 0, Phillips 1 0-0 2, Wasmuth 3 3-5 11, Wollerman 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 8-14 59.
Pana scoring - Ade 0 0-0 0, Beyers 3 0-0 6, Hinton 0 2-2 2, Maziarz 0 0-0 0, Metzger 1 3-4 5, Schmitz 9 5-6 23, Vernon 0 0-0 0, Waddington 5 9-11 20. Totals 18 19-24 56.
Last Wednesday's Game
The third time was not a charm for the Vandals in more ways than one, as the Shells staved off a Senior Night upset.
Wasmuth had forced the second and third O.T. sessions with clutch 3-pointers, but Vandalia was unable to send the game into a fourth extra session as pair of open looks from beyond the arc were off the mark at the end of the third O.T.
Such a scenario seemed unthinkable a few moments earlier, however, as Vandalia trailed by seven points, 47-40, with a little more than six minutes remaining in regulation.
But the Vandals responded with a 7-0 spurt capped that tied the game at 52 with two minutes to go.
The score would remain that way all the way until the final buzzer, as both teams were unable to take advantage of several opportunities to seal the deal in regulation.
Roxana looked to be in the driver's seat in the first overtime after a Brian Elkin's 3-pointer gave the Shells a 57-54 lead and Vandalia committed a turnover with about two minutes to go.
But Elkins gave the ball right back to Vandalia - bouncing the ball off his leg in an unnecessary attempt to dribble the ball between his legs - as Wasmuth came up with a steal and tied the game at 57 moments later with a 3-pointer.
After the teams exchanged turnovers, Roxana got the ball back with a minute to go and worked down the clock before a potential game-winning 3-pointer was off the mark.
Roxana enjoyed a three-point lead once again late in the second O.T., but Wasmuth once again tied the game with a clutch 3-pointer with 36 seconds remaining.
Bell nearly won the game for the Vandals in the final seconds, but his three-quarters court shot following a steal with just off the mark.
Vandalia opened the third overtime in promising fashion, as a Bell jumper gave Vandalia a 64-62 lead. But Chris Wood countered with a 3-pointer for Roxana before giving the host team another three-point lead with a pair of free throws off a Vandalia turnover with 1:19 to go.
After the teams traded free throws, Vandalia had a chance to tie the game with 22 seconds to go. Wasmuth couldn't connect a third time, however, and after a Bell offensive rebound, Marty Johnson's 3-point attempt was off as well.
The junior varsity Vandals took a defensive struggle against the Shells, as Angel Osorio led the way with 15 points in a 39-32 Vandalia win.
Quinn Phillips added 11 points for the Vandals, while Marty Johnson had seven and Cody Norris had five.
Vandalia 12 11 17 12 5 5 3 - 65
Roxana 12 8 23 9 5 5 6 - 68
Vandalia scoring - Bell 7 2-2 17, Cowger 7 0-0 14, Durr 1 0-0 2, Ma. Johnson 3 0-0 8, Mi. Johnson 1 4-4 6, Wasmuth 6 1-3 18. Totals 25 7-9 65.