There’s an old saying that proclaims that it’s not how you start that’s important – but how you finish.
That said, the Vandalia girls basketball team is feeling great heading into the postseason following its fourth-straight strong showing to close out the regular season, a 45-32 victory Monday at Staunton.
But, ironically, a key to the Lady Vandals’ strong finish has been a string of outstanding starts.
For the fourth-straight game, Vandalia built up a double-digit lead in the first period, as they had Staunton behind the eight ball from the get-go, enjoying a 15-5 advantage after one quarter of play.
The Lady Bulldogs finished strong, but never managed to get the Lady Vandals’ lead under 10 points the rest of the way, as Vandalia cruised to victory in perhaps its last-ever visit to Staunton.
"This has always been a tough place to play, and we’ve had some tough ballgames up here," Lady Vandals coach Mike Butler said. "Staunton’s got a solid team this year; they’ve won some big games. It’s good to get out of here with a win."
Making the victory even sweeter was the fact that it wrapped up a perfect 10-0 South Central Conference East Division run for Vandalia.
"It was a goal and it feels good," said Mike Butler of sweeping the conference slate. "Any time you can run the table in the conference – and a solid conference like the South Central-East – that’s quite an accomplishment."
The Lady Vandals (25-1) also came up just shy of a flawless regular season overall, suffering their only defeat to Decatur Macarthur at the Mattoon Christmas Tournament.
"I told them that they’ll look back at this sometime when it’s over and realize they were a four-point game away from a perfect season," Butler said. "That just doesn’t happen very often."
Staunton was one of the few teams that managed to test the Lady Vandals during the regular season, as the Lady Bulldogs lost by just seven points at VCHS back on Jan. 8.
That said, the host team felt pretty good about their chances for an upset after Devin Painter opened the game with a 3-pointer.
But the Lady Vandals countered with 11-straight points, making it known they had no intentions of finishing off the regular season with a sub-par effort.
Defense was once again a key to VCHS’s first-quarter blitz, as it forced seven Staunton turnovers in the opening eight minutes. But the Lady Vandals’ offense was just as impressive, as they hit their first three field goal attempts and finished the frame 7 of 13 from the field.
The Lady Vandals cooled off a bit in the second quarter, but strong bench play and more stifling defense helped Vandalia extend its lead to 25-11 at halftime.
The Lady Bulldogs wound up hitting just 4 of 14 from the field in the first half, coughing up the ball 12 times.
Outstanding passing and the aggressive play of senior Cassie Warner keyed Vandalia’s solid offensive start.
The Lady Vandals recorded assists on seven of their 10 first-half baskets, and Warner kicked off a big all-around game by scoring six first-quarter points, including a driving bucket that put Vandalia up by double digits for good, 15-5, with 30 seconds remaining in the first quarter.
The Lady Vandals extended to their biggest least, 29-11, on a pullup jumper by Amanda Walton early in the second half, as the Lady Bulldogs were an abysmal 4 of 18 from the field at that point.
The host team suddenly started making baskets late in the third quarter, hitting 7 of 8 field goal attempts from the midpoint of the third quarter to early stages of the fourth.
Fortunately, they never got any closer than 12 points of the lead during that stretch, thanks to big buckets by Amanda Walton, Warner and Shelby Cearlock. Laura Hobbie and Cearlock also connected on a pair of free throws apiece during the key stretch.
On a night in which 1,000-point scorers Hobbie and Cearlock combined for just 13 points, Warner picked up the offensive slack, finishing with a game-high 17 points.
But she was even more impressive on the defensive end, grabbing six steals, to go along with seven rebounds.
The senior’s defensive efforts helped the Lady Vandals force 23 Staunton turnovers. It was the 11th straight game a Vandalia opponent has coughed the ball up 20 or more times.
Amanda Walton joined Warner in double figures with 11 points.
The Lady Vandals will now have more than a week to prepare for next Wednesday’s postseason opener against either Nokomis or Pana in a semifinal game of the Teutopolis Class 2A Regional.
Butler feels good about his team going in.
"I think the last three or four ballgames we’ve stepped it up," said Butler, who commended his team for finding a way to win when it was struggling at times in the middle of the season. "We’ve gotten back to that form we had earlier."
If the Lady Vandals win Wednesday, a rematch of last year’s Vandalia Regional championship will likely take place on Thursday – this time on Teutopolis’s home floor.
But Butler is confident that is not where the differences from last year will end.
"We just told them down there that we’re the No. 1 seed because we’re the best team over there," Butler said. "We really believe that.
"I think last year, T-Town was a little bit better than we were," said Butler, whose team lost to the Lady Shoes in last year’s regional final. "But this year, I think it’s reversed a little bit. If we go over there and play two solid games, we can win it. We’re going to go over there not cocky, but confident."
The Lady Vandals closed out the season in fine fashion, rolling to a 45-27 win over Staunton.
Haley Wollerman led the way with 16 points, while Maggie Childers and Amber Durbin had six apiece.
Vandalia 50, Pinckneyville 29
If ever there was a team that deserved two Senior Nights, it is the Lady Vandals, whose eight-senior contingent will easily go down as the best class in program history.
And that group took full advantage of one last opportunity to play on its home floor, rolling to a victory over a tough Pinckneyville team in the Third Annual First National Bank/Hosick Motors Shootout just two nights after celebrating its official Senior Night with a win over Pana.
Another blistering start was key for Vandalia, which hit its first four field goal attempts and found itself up 17-4 just six minutes into the game following a driving bucket by Cearlock.
The Lady Vandals extended their lead to 16 points on two occasions in the second quarter and enjoyed a comfortable 29-17 halftime lead.
The Lady Panthers gave the home team a bit of a scare at the start of the third quarter, however, exploding out of the locker room with 10-2 run that cut Vandalia’s lead to just four.
The Lady Vandals responded, though, closing the game out on a 19-2 run. Ashley Durbin got the game-closing run started by connecting on a jumper late in the third.
"We had four points in that third quarter, and one was a big shot by Ashley," Butler said. "She doesn’t shoot a lot, but we’ve tried to get her to shoot it little more. That was a big shot for us at that point in the game."
Walton followed with a bucket on a baseline drive, and Vandalia pushed its lead back out to 10 points moments later, as Durbin found Warner with a no-look pass for an easy basket in the lane.
After Hobbie and Warner connected on a pair of free throws apiece, Cearlock drove the final nails in the coffin with back-to-back baskets, capping an MVP performance.
Cearlock finished with 17 points, six steals and four rebounds in a scintillating all-around display, while Walton had 12 points on 6 of 10 shooting.
"It was a good, strong start again," Butler said. "I don’t know if it was a letdown or what in that third quarter, but Pinckneyville came out pretty strong. They played some good defense and hit some shots. But the kids responded well down the stretch."
Hobbie added eight points and nine rebounds, and seven of the Lady Vandals’ eight seniors registered in the scoring column in their final home game.