Embedded in a deceptively lopsided 63-39 loss to the host team Friday at the St. Anthony Thanksgiving Tournament was something the Vandalia boys basketball team desperately needed after a pair of discouraging defeats to start the season.
That progress carried over to the Vandals’ seventh-place contest against Flora Saturday. And, fortunately, it showed in the final score this time, as Vandalia rolled to its first win of the year, 58-47.
“The last two nights were positive steps, and we just need to keep taking those positive steps,” Vandals coach Kevin Jackson said. “I think we’re heading in the right direction.”
Against a young Wolves squad, Vandalia corrected just about everything that had been ailing it.
After averaging 21 turnovers in its first three games, the Vandals coughed the ball up just eight times.
“That’s a nice number for us,” Jackson said. “Hopefully that’s a position we can be in (consistently).”
And after shooting a grand total of eight free throws in its previous two contests, Vandalia went to the line 31 times, converting 22 of their charity attempts.
“We shot a ton of free throws,” Jackson said. “Any time you can make more than they shoot (Flora had 14 attempts), you’re putting yourself in a nice spot.
“That means were being aggressive, getting the ball down on the blocks and going from there.”
It also helped that two of the Vandals’ bright spots throughout the tournament – the play of seniors Drew Bell and Austin Wollerman – continued to shine Saturday.
Bell capped off an all-tournament performance by pumping in a team-high 17 points and grabbing two steals.
For the tournament, Bell averaged just under 14 points-per-game, shooting 49 percent from the field.
Bell’s scoring was huge, considering the Vandals played all but one game without the services of sophomore Marty Johnson, who was hampered with a lingering ankle injury. But Jackson was just as happy with other aspects of Bell’s game.
“More than (scoring), I think he provided really good leadership and real solid defense,” Jackson said. “He always gets the opposing team’s best guard. He gave us what we need from him.
“We’re thrilled for Drew. I thought he had a real nice tournament.”
Like Bell’s scoring, the Vandals’ effort was there throughout the tournament – and Wollerman set the tone.
Undersized for a post player at just 5-10, Wollerman somehow managed to average 7.5 rebounds-per-game in the tourney, adding just under 10 ppg.
“He just works so dad-gum hard,” Jackson said. “He’s a leader for us, verbally and physically as well.”
After a Bell 3-pointer tied the game at 13-all at the end of the first quarter, Wollerman teamed up with sophomore big man Will Cowger to help the Vandals take charge of the game from the free-throw line in the second quarter.
The Vandals outscored the Wolves 16-8 during the frame, with Cowger and Wollerman combining to score 12 of those points – with all but two of them coming from the charity stripe.
Cowger’s ability to get to the line was the byproduct of improved aggressiveness by the 6-3 forward, who finished with 11 points.
“He’s going to have to continue that,” Jackson said. “He wasn’t very aggressive in the first three games. He knows that – he’d be the first to admit that. We’ve got to have him; it’s plain and simple. He’s a big part for us.”
The Vandals’ advantage at the foul line helped it take a 29-21 lead into intermission, and Bell wasted no time extending VCHS’s lead to double digits, coming up with a steal and a fast-break layup at the start of the third quarter.
The Vandals’ extended their lead to 13 points late in the quarter on a Bell 3-pointer, and his younger brother, Daniel, made sure Vandalia carried momentum into the third quarter, hitting a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give VCHS a 42-31 lead.
Flora managed to pull to within seven, 46-39, after a 3-pointer by freshman phenom Paul Knapp with a little more than three minutes remaining in the game. But Drew Bell answered with an old-fashioned three-point play after getting fouled on an off-balanced jumper, and the Vandals never looked back.
Wollerman finished with 16 points and eight boards for the Vandals, while Angel Osorio added nine points, seven of which came in the final frame.
Dylan Durr had just two points, but the junior guard came up with four steals and grabbed five rebounds.
Daniel Bell gave the Vandals a boost off the bench again, and the sophomore guard played admirably in his first week of varsity action.
“Daniel did a real nice job filling in in a situation I don’t know that he expected to be in,” said Jackson, who promoted Bell to the varsity rotation after Johnson’s injury. “I don’t know if I expected him to be in that situation. He certainly did a nice job.”
Despite Daniel Bell’s play, Jackson and the Vandals are certainly looking forward to Johnson’s return Friday at East Alton-Wood River.
Jackson played Johnson against Taylorville on Wednesday, but decided to error on the side of caution Friday and Saturday.
“I just tried to be smart after playing him on Wednesday,” Jackson said. “I was probably a little antsy (playing him against Taylorville), even though they said he was good to go. I got a little premature there. And I wanted to put him in today, and my assistants had to talk me out of it.”
St. Anthony 63, Vandalia 39
The Bulldogs started and closed with a flourish, leading to a final score that was a bit deceiving.
St. Anthony raced out to a 14-2 lead just 2 ½ minutes into the game, but the Vandals countered with a 13-5 run, capped by a Drew Bell jumper that cut the Bulldogs’ lead to just four, 19-15, at the start of the second quarter.
The talented Bulldogs managed to extend back out to a 15-point halftime lead, however, but VCHS proved scrappy, cutting that lead to 11 points, early in the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, the host team outscored Vandalia 15-2 in the final seven minutes of the game.
“There were a lot of good things that went on, but that was just an awful good basketball team we were playing,” Jackson said. “A lot of things that we want to do, we were able to do. Despite the result, it was a positive step.”
The Vandals shot a respectable 42 percent from the floor, but 20 turnovers and the inability to get to the free-throw line proved too much to overcome. VCHS had just two charity attempts, coming up empty on both.
Drew Bell led Vandalia with 13 points, four assists and three steals, while Wollerman had 12 points and nine rebounds.
Quinn Phillips added six points and two blocks off the bench in the second half.
Last Wednesday’s Game
Taylorville 44, Vandalia 31
Things were going well for the Vandals with five minutes remaining in the second quarter, as Vandalia enjoyed a 12-7 lead.
But the Vandals suffered a rash of turnovers just before intermission, and the trend continued in the second half, helping the Tornadoes pull away.
The Vandals turned the ball over seven times in the final five minutes of the second quarter – including six straight possessions – as Taylorville took a 14-12 lead into halftime.
The Vandals then coughed up the ball on four straight possessions to start the second half. Still, they found themselves tied with the Tornadoes, 16-16, after Wollerman found Cowger for a bucket inside with five minutes remaining in the third quarter.
But a Cordell Castle 3-pointer off another Vandals turnover gave Taylorville the lead for good, and the Tornadoes pulled away with a 20-10 advantage in the fourth quarter.
The Vandals wound up shooting just 30 percent from the field (13 of 44), turning the ball over 23 times.
Last Tuesday’s Game
Effingham 60, Vandalia 40
Drew Bell kicked off an all-tournament performance by hitting all six of his field goal attempts and scoring all 13 of Vandalia’s points in the first quarter, as the Vandals trailed the defending champion Hearts by just one point, 14-13, after eight minutes.
But Cody McCollum hit back-to-back 3-pointers at the start of the second quarter, in which Effingham enjoyed a 14-4 advantage. McCollum went on to score a game-high 22, as the Hearts pulled away in the second half.
Bell finished with 17 points, hitting 8 of 9 from the floor, but was held in check by Jordan Tate, who guarded Bell from the second quarter on.
A big advantage on the boards (45-16) and 20 Vandals turnovers also helped Effingham pull away.