With fellow seniors Trey Miller and Verlynn Johnson backing him up, Caden Wilburn wasn't shy about leading the Van-Far varsity boys basketball team into its Final Four game against Class 2 Oran on March 8 in Springfield and it showed in the 13-point performance he gave that featured two-triples.
Wilburn really did get plenty of support when it came to trying to lead the Indians, 23-8 overall, back to the championship after winning everything a season ago as Miller came through with nine points and Verlynn Johnson and Verdell Johnson scored seven each, but the Eagles had just a little bit more. What that equated to was, even though the Indians did score double-digit points in the first and third quarters on their way to 17 field goals, none of that was enough to keep them from falling to Oran 58-40.
"We started off playing well. We jumped up 8-2, then their pressure kind of bothered us a little bit. It was one of those things where we kind of went into panic mode," said Van-Far coach Pat Connaway. "The lights might have been too bright for some of our younger kids. We lost some shooters and (Oran, 30-2 overall,) went 6-of-8 from three in the first half. They built a seven-point lead heading into the locker room. No big deal, though. We've been down before."
One reality to Van-Far's success last year that the team stayed true to this season was drawing from every member of its roster that it can every time out, sometimes leading to smaller yet much-needed contributions. In this game those came by way of two points each from Colin Wilburn and Dillion Minor.
"(During the break) we talked about tightening things up and what we needed to do. Compact the middle, play downhill, get the ball inside," Connaway said. "That's where our advantage was. We're a lot bigger and stronger. We came out, played a good third. Had the lead down to one at 31-30, but then we missed a layup. Unfortunately, (Oran) got a long kick-out and a layup. We came down, took a bad shot, they got another layup. Before we could get a timeout they had pushed the lead back to seven."
Something that was missing from the Indians offerings in this affair were the intangibles. For example, of those 17 made field goals, only two were from three-point territory. The squad also was just 4-for-8 from the charity stripe.
"That took the wind out of our sails in about 30 seconds and there was only about 1:43 to go. It was make-or-break time, so we tried to press (Oran), but they were just too quick. They were very guard-oriented," said Connaway. "(Oran) moved the ball very well. We couldn't even catch them to trap them. When we did foul them, (Oran) knocked down their free throws to put this game away. They did what they needed to do to close this contest out."
Once this game was behind Van-Far the team had one choice. That was to regroup and come back the next day, Mar. 9, for the third-place contest against Plattsburg, 22-10 overall, a task made much more difficult by Isaiah Graham charting 12 points and three steals in 31 minutes played. Miller just couldn't have cared less about any other squad, though. This event was for he and Wilburn, who posted 17 and 10 points, respectively, and the Indians simply dominated from start to finish to come out on top 56-34.
"We came out very focused. When you get into these third-place games you don't really know what frame of mind your team is going to be in," Connaway said. "We were disappointed. We went to Springfield with every intention of playing for another title. The kids did a great job of bouncing back. They were prepared. They came out ready. Some calls went against us early, but it didn't bother us. We had a 12-10 lead at the end of the first quarter and then we just kept our defense up."
Just because Van-Far only had that pair of double digit scorers, as well as a defensive approach akin to that of Michael Douglas in the motion picture, "Falling Down", co-starring Robert Duvall, doesn't mean it's offensive offerings weren't special all by themselves. What made the Indians scoring so unique is all the different sources it unleashed on Plattsburg, such as Verlyn Johnson and Verdell Johnson with six points each and a combined seven rebounds and scoring four was Treyson Culwell.
"We got in a little foul trouble and the bench kids really stepped up and logged some minutes. We held them to nine points in the second quarter and took a 28-19 lead into the locker room," said Connaway. "Miller had an outstanding first half. I think he scored 14. He carried us. In the locker room we talked about coming out and finishing. We thought we could break their spirits and that's exactly what we did. We put up another great defensive performance and held them to nine points."
Plattsburg's Austin Stevens also managed eight points and five rebounds and Kaden Hodge lodged six points and four boards. For the game this team connected on 12 of its 41 field goals. This includes going 7-for-16 before halftime and 5-for-25 after.
"We stretched our lead to 17 points in the third. In that quarter Caden hit two three-pointers and scored eight of his 10 points to lead us offensively," Connaway said. "Verdell had an outstanding game. He saw the floor well and really handled their pressure. Ultimately, it was our defense (that won us this game) and we pushed the lead up to 23, 24 points in the fourth and basically cruised to the victory.
The Indians shot 22-for-46 in this contest, going 11-for-25 in the first half and 11-for-21 in the second half. Within that Van-Far may have only connected on two of its nine attempts from three-point territory, but those numbers are deceiving because they revolve around missing all six tries in the first-half.