The final three minutes of last Thursday’s game at VCHS seemed to take an eternity.
But considering how long it had been since the Vandalia boys basketball team last tasted victory, the wait was well worth it.
Shelbyville attempted to prolong the game – and the Vandals’ agony – as long as possible by sending the host team to the line 17 times in the final 2 1/2 minutes.
But the Vandals shook off the Rams’ comeback strategy – along with the 400-pound gorilla on their backs- by hitting 12 of those attempts, enough to secure their first victory of the season, 57-48.
When the clock finally hit :00, a collective sigh of relief quickly gave way to an exuberant celebration that spilled over into the Vandals’ locker room.
‘I’m extremely proud of those guys in the locker room right now,’ Vandalia coach Kevin Jackson said. ‘They’re celebrating, and they should be right now, because they’ve worked their tails off to get to this point.’
The Vandals (1-10) had flirted with victory a handful of times in recent weeks, only to watch the losses mount and their frustration grow. But despite the latter, Jackson and his staff never lost faith that the Vandals would break through in the win column.
‘We knew it was gonna happen,’ Jackson said. ‘We were playing better, and it was just a matter of time until we got one.’
On Thursday, the Vandals not only got one – they got one against a pretty good team.
The Rams, who are the No. 4 seed in the upcoming Vandalia Holiday Tournament, were winners of five of first six games coming in.
‘We beat a pretty darn good basketball team there,’ Jackson said. ‘That’s a quality, quality win right now, when you step up and beat a team that was 5-1 and has been beating some people.’
And the Vandals did so in fairly convincing fashion, taking a lead they would not relinquish early in the first quarter on a Mitch Johnson jumper.
Vandalia would extend its lead to 12 points at halftime, enjoying its biggest advantage, 29-16, after a Johnson free throw early in the third quarter.
‘We controlled the game pretty much from start to finish,’ Jackson said.
Prior to the foul-fest of the final three minutes, Shelbyville cut Vandalia’s lead under double digits three times, only to see Drew Bell answer on each occasion with steals for fast-break buckets, each of which extended the Vandals’ lead back to double figures.
Bell’s sixth steal of the night resulted in a transition bucket that gave Vandalia a 41-30 lead with four minutes to go.
But Shelbyville guard Caine Cloe refused to concede Vandalia its first victory.
The 6-foot sophomore scored 13 of his 15 points and grabbed six of his 10 rebounds in the game’s final three minutes.
Fortunately, Vandalia managed to hit enough free throws to keep the Rams from seriously threatening to steal away a victory.
Senior guard Brenden Wasmuth was particularly clutch at the line, hitting 6 of 6 attempts in the fourth quarter, as the Rams were never able to get any closer than six points of the Vandals down the stretch.
‘It shows our guys that we can close out a basketball game,’ Jackson said. ‘… And we’ll
be better at it the next time.’
The Vandals did a number of things better against Shelbyville than they had in their previous 10 games. They came into the game averaging 18 turnovers, while hitting just 53 percent from the line, but committed just 10 giveaways against the Rams, hitting a respectable 62 percent from the charity stripe.
And though each member of Jackson’s seven-man rotation has had notable individual moments this year, the Vandals gelled as a group for the first time Thursday.
Freshman Marty Johnson had a breakout game, scoring a career-high 16 points with a collection of post moves few upperclassmen possess. Johnson’s effort helped pick up the scoring slack for his brother, Mitch, who was hampered by foul trouble.
On the strength of his free-throw shooting, Wasmuth finished with 11 points, but his five assists were just as key to the Vandals’ success.
Bell continued his fine play over the last three games, finishing with 11 points off the bench. Dylan Durr added three steals and a number of deflections on the defensive end, in addition to taking care of the ball at the point.
‘Guys just stepped up,’ Jackson said.
Cowger was held to seven points, but his defensive work on Shelbyville standout Jay Nottingham was as important as his teammates’ offensive con tributions.
Nottingham went for 17 points and seven rebounds, a quiet night, considering he came in averaging 24 and 15.
‘He got 17, but that was an extremely quiet 17,’ Jackson said.
The combination of Cowger, Bell, Marty Johnson, Durr and Wasmuth played so well during the fourth quarter that they put their coach in an awkward position.
‘I told Austin (Wollerman) on the bench, ‘You didn’t do anything to say sitting, but I don’t know if I want to mess with what we got,’ Jackson said.
‘He said, ‘Coach, if we win, that’s all that matters.’ Right now, that’s the kind of kids we have.’
Character was never an issue during the Vandals’ 0-10 start. And thanks to the team’s collective resilience, that winless start is now in now behind them.
‘It would have been easy for them to be dragging their chins on the floor, but they didn’t. This game tonight is proof of that.’
The Vandals will now look forward to hosting the 36th Annual Vandalia Holiday Tournament. Vandalia is the No. 10 seed in the tournament, but, as Shelbyville found out Thursday, the Vandals are not a team to be overlooked.
‘I think everyone around the area knows we’re playing better,’ Jackson said. ‘I don’t think anyone is really wanting to step up and play us right now due to that fact.
‘We have come so far in a month and a half.’
Shelbyville 46, Vandalia 36
The Vandals fell to 4-3 on the year, despite 13 points from Angel Osorio and 10 from Marty Johnson.
Quinn Phillips chipped in six, and Matt Grove and Daniel Bell chipped in four and three points, respectively, to round out the Vandals’ scoring.