A boxing analogy might seem apt to describe the Vandalia girls basketball team’s championship-game tilt with Webber Township Saturday at the Sandoval Tournament.
But boxing is too civil a sport to compare to what transpired in the Lady Vandals’ 30-26 victory over the previously undefeated Lady Trojans.
Vandalia emerged from the hoops equivalent of a UFC bout with more floorburns and bruises than made field goals. Still, the Lady Vandals were feeling no pain when the final bell, err, buzzer sounded, as the team hoisted its seventh Sandoval Tournament championship plaque in nine seasons.
‘You’re never unhappy with a victory,’ said Vandalia coach Mike Butler. ‘It wasn’t pretty, but they’re not all gonna be pretty.’
The Lady Vandals made just 8 of 43 shots from the floor (19 percent). Still, they managed to overcome a seven-point third-quarter deficit with solid free-throw shooting – making eight charity attempts in a row during a decisive 12-0 run – to go along with their patented defensive dominance.
The Lady Trojans (19-1) made 50 percent of their shots from the field (11 of 22), but committed a whopping 32 turnovers in the face of Vandalia’s press and trapping 2-3 zone.
‘It’s been our strong point all year,’ said Butler of the Lady Vandals’ defense, which allowed just 19 points per game in three tournament wins. ‘For some reason the last couple games, we’ve struggled offensively. Part of that was Webber tonight; their defense is pretty solid. But our defense pulled it out again.’
It didn’t look like the Lady Vandals defense was going to be enough at the start of the second half, as Webber scored three baskets in a row to take a 20-13 lead.
Considering both teams’ offensive struggles up to that point, a seven-point lead felt more like 20.
But Vandalia maintained its defensive intensity, which finally paid off when a Cassie Warner steal set up a Shelby Cearlock jumper that started the game’s decisive run.
Cearlock added a driving basket moments later after coming up with one of her five steals, and Amanda Walton closed out the third quarter with a steal and fast-break bucket that cut the Lady Trojans’ lead to one, 20-19, entering the final frame.
The Lady Vandals got over the hump at the foul line by hitting eight in a row from the line over the next six minutes, as Walton gave Vandalia a lead it would not relinquish, 21-20, by hitting 2 of 2 from the charity stripe.
Webber broke a seven-minute scor ing drought with a bucket with 3:38 to go, but it committed 10 turnovers during that span, which would prove to be too much to overcome.
‘I think that run was probably the ballgame right there,’ Butler said. ‘They had a chance to put us away and they couldn’t do it.’
Laura Hobbie gave the Lady Vandals their biggest lead, 27-22, by canning two free throws with two minutes to go.
But, fueled by a vocal supporting crowd, the Lady Trojans made things interesting down the stretch.
After an Alicia Ullery bucket cut Vandalia’s lead to three, 27-24, Cearlock was whistled for a controversial charge as she was trying to work her way through three pressing Webber defenders.
Emily Heins then drew Cearlock’s fifth foul on a 3-point attempt, converting 2 of 3 from the line, cutting Vandalia’s lead to just one, 27-26, setting up a wild final minute and change.
Things got interesting when Vandalia missed a couple of free throws with 1:01 left on the clock. Julianna Banal appeared to have secured an offensive rebound on the second miss, however, before being wrestled to the floor in violent fashion and hitting her elbow on the floor.
Adding insult to injury, a jump ball was called on the play, giving possession to Webber.
Webber coughed the ball up on the ensuing possession, however, sending the Lady Vandals to the foul line once again. But again, two foul shots rimmed out for Vandalia.
The ball ended up out of bounds in the Lady Vandals’ favor, but Shayla Richardson stole Vandalia’s inbounds pass and raced down the court to attempt a layup that would have given the Lady Trojans the lead with 39 seconds left.
But Banal caught up to Richardson and blocked her layup attempt seconds before forcing Webber’s 32nd and final turnover.
Banal was fouled soon after, making 1 of 2 attempts, to give Vandalia a 28-26 lead. Webber still had a chance to tie or take the lead in the final 15 seconds to go, but failed to get a decent look on its final shot of the game. Warner corralled her ninth rebound of the game with two seconds to go and sealed the game by hitting a pair of free throws.
A collective sigh of relief followed Warner’s second free throw, followed by a wild celebration by the Vandalia bench.
‘You just keep battling, and you hope good things will happen, and they did,’ Butler said.
Warner finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and four steals, but missed the cut for the all-tournament team. Walton and Hobbie represented Vandalia on the all-tournament team, however, after scoring five and seven points, respectively.
The Lady Vandals’ victory was all the more impressive considering the adverse conditions they played in.
A a large contingent of organized and enthusiastic Webber Township supporters packed into a tiny and very hot Sandoval High School gym, giving the game a feel of a postseason road contest rather than a neutral-court affair.
‘The atmosphere was different than a lot of places,’ Butler said. ‘Webber had a ton of people here, which I knew they would. It’s loud in here, and I think we were just a little too keyed up when it started, and we kind of played outside our game a little bit.’
The Lady Vandals seemed a bit rattled early, as Cearlock and Hobbie each drew a pair of quick fouls and Vandalia started 0 of 13 from the field.
‘We rushed some shots and didn’t work the ball like we normally do,’ Butler said. ‘We had too many outside shots.’
Despite the Lady Vandals’ cold start, Webber never managed to create much separation in the first half due to turnovers. The Lady Trojans went into halftime with a one-point lead, 14-13, and Vandalia ratcheted up its defensive intensity in the second half.
‘I thought our defense played much better in the second half than they did the first,’ Butler said. ‘I thought that was a big difference.’
In addition to ending Webber’s 19-game winning streak, the Lady Vandals extended their own win streak to eight.
‘We’re on a good run, but we’ve got a tough couple weeks coming up,’ Butler said. ‘We’ve got to be ready to play some basketball. We’re pleased so far, but we’ve got to keep getting better and hopefully put ourselves in position to get a good seed in the sectional.’
The Lady Vandals will host their own Class 2A regional the week of Feb. 4.
Vandalia 5 8 6 11 – 30
Webber 4 10 6 6 – 26
Vandalia scoring – Cearlock 2-15 0-0 4, Hobbie 2-12 2-2 6, Walton 1-5 3-4 5, Warner 2-8 6-6 10, Banal 1-4 1-2 3, Durbin 0-0 2-6 2. Totals 8-43 14-21 30.
Webber scoring – Richardson 2 0-0 4, Ullery 6 2-3 14, Heins 2 3-4 4, Helm 1 0-0 2, Mayberry 1 0-0 2. Totals 11-22 4-6 26.
Last Wednesday’s Semifinal
Vandalia 49, Woodlawn 14
Vandalia’s defense held an opposing team in the teens for the second game in succession, helping the Lady Vandals roll into Saturday’s championship game.
Banal led the way with a season-high 13 points, while Amanda Walton and Warner added 10 apiece.
Woodlawn 2 2 5 5 – 14
Vandalia 10 16 17 – 49
Vandalia scoring – Banal 13, Walton 10, Warner 10, Hobbie 8, Cearlock 4, Durbin 2.