VANDALIA — On the morning after Christmas, the Flora basketball team left home at 7:15 for Vandalia to make a 9:30 game, but was still late for shoot-around as its bus navigated a blizzard that dropped six inches of snow in Flora.
“It took us an hour-and-20 minutes just to get to Effingham,” Flora coach Phil Leib said.
Once there, the Wolves had to play two Vandalia Holiday Tournament games in a six-hour span. But outside of a couple of wonky quarters on Tuesday, Flora remained one of the area’s most pleasant surprises with a pair of wins — 50-36 against South Central and 70-45 against Greenville — to improve to 9-1.
Flora — the tournament’s top seed — was particularly impressive in its second game. The Wolves took an 18-8 first-quarter lead, and after Greenville cut the lead to seven at half, Flora showed everything it was capable of with a 39-21 advantage in the second half.
“It was a long day, but we stayed pretty energized,” said junior Ethan Leib, who had 23 points and seven rebounds against Greenville. “We feel pretty good about winning our second game of a day like this by 25 points.”
Flora’s offense stagnated in the second quarter when 6-foot-5 senior Blake Shehorn went to the bench with two fouls and the Comets (3-6) cut Flora’s 10-point first-quarter lead to seven at half. Shehorn picked up two quick fouls and the third and it appeared Greenville might keep the game tight. But three baskets inside by Ethan Leib and two 3-pointers by Bryce Pearce led a 14-2 Flora run to put the game out of Greenville’s reach. The run gave Flora a 19-point lead late in the third.
“I like the way we responded,” Phil Leib said. “Bryce got hot and Ethan played with a purpose. He’s a horse in there and he’s tough for some people to stop.”
Flora is the defending tournament champion, but last year’s team featured two star players in Paul Knapp and Nick Painter. This year’s team was expected to have a drop-off, but it hasn’t happened.
“We’re playing team basketball,” Ethan Leib said. “No one cares who scores, rebounds or who gets the assists. We just want to win.”
Pana 66, St. Elmo 48
Like Flora, Pana was hit hard by graduation. In fact, the Panthers — runners-up at last year’s tournament — lost nearly every contributor.
But fourth-seeded Pana has also been a pleasant surprise, improving to 6-3 with a team that — like Flora — has won with defense. But its offense finally showed up against fifth-seeded St. Elmo, with four players scoring in double figures.
“We finally started hitting some shots,” Pana coach Gary Bowker said. “The kids have done a good job playing defense, but we felt like it was just a matter of time because we have guys who can shoot.”
The Panthers were led by Dylan Hudlin, who came off the bench to knock down 4-of-6 from 3-point range for 18 points. Hudlin is normally a starter, but missed the morning shoot-around.
“I told him, ‘I’m not mad at you, but I have to start someone else,’ ” Bowker said. “If you don’t do anything when someone misses, later in the season kids will say, ‘I’m not going because nothing will happen to me if I don’t.’ ”
Hudlin was embarrassed about missing, but made up for it with his performance.
“I kind of slept in on accident because Christmas was the day before. I learned my lesson,” Hudlin said. “But I felt good about my shot the whole day. I could tell it was going to be good even before the game.”
Pana led by just one at half, but had a dominating third quarter, outscoring the Eagles 23-4.
“We finally started hitting shots,” Hudlin said. “Coach told us eventually we were going to hit a stretch where we started shooting lights-out, and we did.”
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With Knapp and Painter gone, Flora had to re-invent itself. And this Wolves team, while not as talented, appears to have better chemistry than the team the last two years.
Flora’s success starts with tight man-to-man help defense. Offensively, the Wolves have two players who can score in the post in Shehorn and Leib — who plays bigger than 6-4 — two good 3-point shooters in Pearce and Christian Taylor, and a capable bench led by Cory Moore.
Taylor, though, is more than just a shooter. He handles the ball, he’s a good passer and he can guard any position on the floor.
“We’re not a great team, but we’re finding ways to get things done,” Phil Leib said.
Taking the next step
Most of Pana’s varsity roster is made up of last year’s JV team, which went 17-1.
But because last year’s team had so many seniors, the JV team was mostly juniors going against teams playing freshmen and sophomores.
“It scared me because they were getting a lot of wins against weaker teams,” Bowker said. “But they’ve done a pretty good job so far.”
When the rest of the Pana players heard Hudlin getting called out of the locker room to be interviewed, they laughed and ribbed the shy Hudlin.
“Hudlin? Does he know how to talk” quipped a voice from the Pana locker room.
Maybe it’s just Altamont’s style — I can’t say because I hadn’t seen the Indians play yet — but from what I watched of the Maroa/Altamont game it appeared the Indians were trying to push the pace on a Maroa team playing its second game of the day.
It worked. Second-seeded Maroa looked a step slow mentally and physically in a 55-44 loss to seventh-seeded Altamont — the tournament’s biggest day one upset.
Sixth-seeded Shelbyville, which lost to Maroa 60-56 earlier in the day, also pulled an upset with a 55-42 win against third-seeded Vandalia.