Panthers stage late comeback, but fall to Saints in Third Place game

Pinckneyville senior Kyle Luke shows his emotions after Saturday's Third Place game. (Doug Daniels Photos)

By Doug Daniels

1351sports.com / pinckneyvillesports.com

March 11, 2018

  (Peoria, Ill.) - They won't be coming home with the trophy they wanted, but in both games of this past weekend's IHSA Class 2A State Finals, the Panthers did what Panthers do - they battled.
  Pinckneyville had to settle for Fourth Place after falling to Bloomington (Central Catholic) in the Third Place game, 69-61, after a late rally back from being down 15 at the half fell short. PCHS closed to within three with 1:22 to play, but ran out of magic, and the Saints were able to hang on.
  "I still thought we had a great opportunity," said Panthers head coach Bob Waggoner. "We had a chance there at the end, we had a layup where we could have cut it to seven in the third, didn't quite get it in the hole, and they came back and got a score on us. There's lots of moments like that in a game. Most people only remember the last few. As a coach, we're counting every possession. Early on we weren't very good at getting stops, we were getting beat off the bounce, we did a couple of things where we weren't in position, we gave up a layup that we don't do. That's mental fatigue a lot of times, and it's also physical fatigue in this tight turnaround. Overall our effort was just fantastic, I wouldn't ask anything of anybody else, these guys did an unbelievable job."

  Pinckneyville started the game by going up 6-0 before BCC outscored them 14-2 the rest of the first period. Central's Elijah Davis hit a three early in the second quarter, and the Panthers were in trouble early down 17-8. A three from Grant Jausel with five minutes left in the half cut the lead to six, but the Saints again finished the quarter strong with a 12-3 push over the last 3:10 of the second period.
  Central guard Austyn Ellison had a pair of threes in the second quarter, four for the game, and would wind up finishing with a game-high 22 points for the Saints.
  "Their guards were very quick," said Pinckneyville's Super-Sectional hero J.C. Moll. "They know how to use their body to get to the rim. They're pretty good defensively too, they get up in you, they pressure the ball pretty good."

  If you've watched much Panther basketball this season, you know this group wasn't going to go down without a fight. Jack Gilmore gave Central their biggest lead of the game with a three ball with 4:53 to go in the third quarter, making the score 42-25, and at that point, PCHS came to life.
  Jausel and Kyle Luke hit layups before Davis hit one of his three triples to put the lead at sixteen, but Jausel answered right back with a three of his own. After a bucket by Gilmore at the other end, Tyler Rice muscled his way inside for two and a foul, completing a conventional three-point play with 2:57 left in the period.
  Later in the quarter, Ellison struck again from downtown, helping BCC take a 12-point lead into the fourth quarter. The Panthers kept on coming, though, getting a three from Luke, and a layup from Luke on an assist from Yates after Pinckneyville forced a turnover, cutting it to seven.
  "We did a better job of getting in the passing lane and picking up our level of play (in the second half)," Waggoner said. "Over the course of this season, we've usually, by the second half, been able to wear most teams down with fatigue to where they don't quite get in the position they want to, their passes got a little bit lazier, and we started getting steals and run-outs because of our ability to rotate guys and stay fresh and continue to put pressure on the ball. The first half I felt like they dictated the pace, the second half I thought we dictated it much better. We started being the aggressor on the defensive end and we were the aggressor on the offensive end, looking for what we need to attack."

  With 4:35 to play, Moll buried a three to make a four-point game, only to see Ellison answer to push the lead right back to seven. The Saints' lead was nine with 2:32 to go, but Yates and Tanner Spihlmann each hit a three just eleven seconds apart, and suddenly it was a one-possession game with 2:00 to go and PCHS down 62-59.
  "We started moving the ball a lot more (in the second half) and setting up our cuts, and we started setting screens better," said Jausel. "We knew we had to set screens because they were over-playing."

  Central's Tommy Nelson and Jausel then traded layups, and from there, Pinckneyville just couldn't get another shot to fall. The Saints left the door open by making just 3-of-6 free throws in the final 1:08 of action, but were able to escape with the Third Place trophy.
  Central was on fire from the field the entire game, finishing 25-for-42 for 59.5%. They made 7-of-14 three-pointers. Davis (15) and Gilmore (10) joined Ellison in double figures.
  "Every team here is very good," said Waggoner. "There weren't any weak links to any team. When you are coaching in a short turnaround, you are trying to find that one guy that maybe you can help off of, or one guy that you can pressure a little bit more and get turnovers. They had some kids today that made some shots that I'm not sure they always make. They hit their three extremely well. They made some tough, tough pull-ups. Normally a couple of those guys don't make all those shots, and today they made them, so it was their day."

  For the Panthers, Jausel led the way with 16 points, giving him a team-high 491 for the season and 1170 for his Panther basketball career. Luke added 13 points, Yates had 12, Moll and Rice each had 7, and Spihlmann finished with 6. Yates led assists with 4, and shared the team lead in steals with Jausel, each swiping 3. Luke had a team-best 5 rebounds.
  An emotional Waggoner addressed the media after the game and was visibly shaken by the thought of losing his senior class.
  "This is going to be hard for me," Waggoner said. "I've got five guys up here that are like my sons. I love them to death. We've been together for four years, been through this. Today is the first day that we've known it's the end. The game really doesn't matter. It's about the growth and maturity of these guys, and our relationship, and my ability to be an important part of their lives, and their ability to be an important part of my life, how much we all mean to each other."
  "I coached them extremely hard, and if you watch, you know that we spend an amount of time together that most teams don't. We basically live together. We do a lot of things, hang out, we take trips. We're family. Today, our biggest fear wasn't losing, our biggest fear was letting down our community and our school, making sure we played the right way. Even though we didn't come out on top on the scoreboard, I hope it's very effort and energy, and how much we appreciate being here, and how hard we want to play for them."

  Yates, the lone starter who will return next year as a junior, also didn't want to bear the thought of not having his "family" there for the final two years of his high school career.
  "It was a great feeling to come up here," Yates said, before pausing to gather himself. "But... this has got to be one of the worst feelings of my life to lose these guys. They're not just a basketball team, they're family, they're like brothers. Coach Waggoner is like a father to me. These guys are family."

  There will be a celebration of the Panthers' 31-5 season held on Sunday, March 11, at 1:30 p.m. in PCHS's historic Thomas Gymnasium. All fans are encouraged to attend.
  "It's important to be a Panther," Waggoner said. "It's important to be from Pinckneyville. It's important to our community. These kids grow up dreaming to here. They fulfilled a dream that most people only dream about, they lived it this weekend. It's a great honor for us to get to go every day and play in our gym, and practice in our gym, and show up on the road and have a home-court advantage. Our crowd is special. There was no way we were going to go off that floor without giving everything that we have. We had a great (crowd) turnout."
  "One of the things about Pinckneyville is, our gym is a community center. People come in there and use it, it's open like a YMCA. We had a sendoff after the Sectional, we had people meet us around the square, after the Super Sectional we had a rally in the gym. We had a sendoff from all our local junior highs, I think we went to four of them on Thursday before we came up. We're going to go back (Sunday) and our town is going to be packed, our gym is going to be packed, and they're going to recognize what these guys did. They're proud, and we're proud to represent them."

(Photos by Doug Daniels / PinckneyvilleSports.com - More photos from Peoria will be posted in a massive State Finals gallery after Sunday's celebration at Thomas Gym)

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