During its 2017-18 Class 2 state championship run, the Van-Far varsity boys basketball team found itself in several rather unique situations that included winning in overtime 53-49 during the Quarterfinals against the only squad it faced that had a female head coach, Milan's Andrea Dabney.
This season these programs ended up in a rematch at Sectionals on Thursday at Hannibal, and the big difference between this contest and the last was that the Wildcats entered this years game undefeated at 26-0 overall. The Indians also had themselves quite a campaign at 20-7 overall, but even though they're the defending champions few thought this would be anything but this squads final contest of 2018-19.
What the masses failed to consider was the championship experienced garnered not that long ago by Van-Far seniors Trey Miller and Verlyn Johnson. That duo proved especially key when they scored eight of their teams nine initial points in the fourth quarter to take what had been a 49-46 lead at the start of the session and turn it into a 59-52 advantage with just 91 seconds remaining in regulation.
That's when Milan's offensive creativity dissipated rather quickly and it was reduced to fouling the Indians, and even though Colin Wilburn split his pair at 1:31 and Caden Wilburn did the same with :21.2 left to play, it's what happened between them that mattered the most. It was then that Verdell Johnson drained both of his foul shots at 1:08, and then again at :33.4 to lock down what soon-there-after would become a 64-52 victory for Van-Far over the Wildcats.
"They had a big boy in the middle (John Ryan Dabney). He's was powerful, a good athlete," said Verlyn Johnson. "(Compared to last season Milan) still hustles and is still a great team. They're still young and next year they're going to be just as good. Last season I only came in for defense. This year I'm more of a scorer. I post up. I do it all. I wasn't feeling to much pressure (in the fourth) because we started off strong. We were out-hustling them. I think the closest gap was a four point difference."
Milan's fans were pretty fired up to start this game and were probably at least part of the reason it had a slight 16-15 advantage at the end of the first quarter. Once head coach Pat Connaway got the Indians centered again, they began the second with a purpose and turned a field goal by Miller and a basket and two free throws from Verdell Johnson into a momentum swing that had them up 21-16 at 5:46. Miller then added two more scores with help from Colin Wilburn to stretch that lead to 27-21 at 3:39.
"This was amazing. We've been practicing, working hard and trying to beat the press. We've got a great scout team that helps us everyday," said Verdell Johnson. "I've got to give it to my coaches. They teach me everything. They told me to take it slow, handle the pressure, don't get nervous and don't turn over the ball. When (Milan) was trapping, we knew the middle would be wide open for the pass, so that's what we did. (Between now and Saturday) we'll work hard, look at film and see what we have to do."
The rest of the second featured Caden Wilburn and Miller trading baskets for Van-Far, but against a Milan attack that featured eight points in the quarter and 21 for the game by Hunter Shaw, as well as four of Dominic Dabney's seven points on the night, that made this a 35-30 affair heading into the half. Once again Miller just needed some direction because he then came out and started the third with a quick basket and a three-pointer at 6:19 to allow the Indians to start creating some space at 43-32.
"We were real focused on defense. We were trying to hold Milan to a low score," Miller said. "We were feeling a little pressure in the fourth, but Verdell Johnson put down some free throws for us and got us comfortable. (This run reminds us) a lot of last season. We always come out a little soft. Eventually we get into the game and everything turns out okay. I do feel like I've got (a little more weight to carry this year). I just try and make sure our bench is ready because I know the starters are."
Those dreams of taking control with that much time left were short-lived for the Indians, though. That's because, despite Miller's 25-point performance, Caden Wilburn's 12 points and the eight points Colin Wilburn accounted for, each of these athletes went 0-for-1 from the charity stripe for the rest of the stanza with one exception. For Caden Wilburn, his split took place at 5:32 followed by Colin Wilburn at 4:01 and Miller's was at 2:15, which is why this was a three-point contest with eight minutes to play.
"Coach (Brett) Reading does such a great job. We dissected I don't know how many hours of film," Connaway said. "We wanted to get the ball in the middle. (Milan) puts all its pressure up top against their zone. We knew if we got to the middle we could get to the baseline and attack and we did. We found Miller. I don't think they've seen a player like Miller. He's back from ACL surgery. The last six weeks have been incredible. I'm so proud of him and all the effort. I'm kind of speechless right now."
Now that the Indians just eliminated the Wildcats by serving them their first loss of the year, next up for the defending Class 2 state champs will be a Quarterfinals matchup on Saturday at Moberly at 1 p.m. against Northeast (Cairo), 20-7 overall. In their Sectional matchup on Thursday at Jefferson City High School the Bearcats defeated Iberia, 20-8 overall, 76-70.
"This was a great team victory. We weren't nervous when we came out. Not very many people thought we could beat (Milan). We believed in ourselves," said Connaway. "We've got a great group. We're bigger and stronger from top to bottom. We just came out and got it done. This is a great team and we're feeding off of that. It's kind of like last years championship. We never got ranked. No one thought we could do it. We used that as motivation and we just keep grinding and playing."