When the Van-Far Indians basketball team managed to beat Elsberry on their home court to win the district finals, head boys coach Pat Connaway was hoping his disciplined and experienced squad had yet another postseason run in them.
With a majority of his 14 active players being juniors and seniors from last year’s state championship team, their experience has shined early on in the state playoffs.
This past week, they picked up double-digit wins over undefeated Milan in sectionals and a solid Cairo squad in the quarterfinals to earn a second straight Final Four trip to Springfield.
Connaway said the key to success was his roster sticking to the mentality of taking things “one day at a time.”
“The mentality, the work ethic; there’s no quit in these guys,” Connaway said. “…The bright lights just don’t scare them.”
Van-Far will play 29-1 Oran at 11 a.m. on Friday, March 8 at the JQH Arena.
With a win, they will play either Greenwood (27-3) or Plattsburg (22-8) for a second straight title at 2:40 p.m. on Saturday, March 9 at JQH Arena.
A loss would put them in the third place game at 11 a.m. inside the Hammons Student Center.
All games will be played at Missouri State University.
Like last season when then senior Lathyn McMorris was sidelined with an injury, this year’s squad had some adversity early on when both Trey Miller and Colin Wilburn missed some time in the lineup.
The adversity led to several Van-Far players gaining valuable experience and minutes on the court.
“Someone always is ready to step up and absorb the minutes,” Connaway noted. “The depth of the bench has really been the difference this year.”
Connaway also noted his team’s commitment on defense, which was very evident in the team’s state quarterfinals win over Cairo.
The Indians’ defense held the Bearcats to 11 points or less in the final three quarters for a 62-43 victory. Cairo shot just 38 percent from the field.
“We focused on defense a lot this week,” Miller said as he credited his team’s preparation to coaches putting in the time studying film along with strong and focused team practices during the week.
While defense was a focus, Miller’s outside shooting had never been better than it was in the quarterfinals played at Moberly Area Community College this past Saturday.
Miller made four, first quarter three-pointers as Cairo failed to adjust to his hot shooting.
“He found a spot in the corner that he likes, we kept him there, and he was huge,” Connaway said.
Miller ended up making all seven of his three-pointers in the game.
Van-Far led 20-15 at the end of the first quarter. After adding his fifth three-pointer early in the second quarter, Miller picked up an early second foul.
Fortunately, it didn’t hurt the Indians.
Verdell Johnon made one three-pointer and Miller re-entered the game to hit his six three-pointer just before the halftime buzzer to put the Indians in front by seven.
Cairo attempted to pound the ball inside for points to start the third quarter and they had some mixed success.
But every time the Bearcats would try to make a run, Van-Far would make a three-pointer to stop any momentum. Caden Wilburn made two big three-pointers while Colin Wilburn and Miller each added shots from beyond the perimeter for a 51-36 lead.
Cairo forced Van-Far to seal the win from the free throw line in the fourth as they purposely put the Indians in the bonus with 4:28 left in the game.
The Indians made 9-of-18 free throws down the stretch to seal the 19-point win.
Van-Far made 17-of-41 shots from the field and 13-of-24 free throws in the win. They also made an astounding 13-of-22 three-point shots.
Miller led all scorers with 27 points after making 8-of-9 shots. He added five rebounds, three assists, two steals, and one block.
Caden Wilburn added four three-pointers for 13 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two blocks.
Verdell Johnson had seven points, four rebounds, and three assists; Colin Wilburn had five points, four rebounds, four assists, and one block; Verlyn Johnson had four points, eight rebounds, two blocks, and one steal; Dillion Minor added three points, two rebounds, and one assist; Aidan Lowrance had one point and one rebound; while Sam Middleton had two points and one rebound.
Knocking off Milan
In the state sectional round, the Indians had a rematch with an undefeated Milan squad they played in the state quarterfinals one year ago.
The game was played at Hannibal High School on Wednesday, February 27, but felt like a home game for the Indians as a large crowd of supporters packed the Pirates’ gym.
Milan, the No. 2 state-ranked team, led 16-15 after the first quarter after Colin Wilburn’s huge three-pointer at the buzzer cut the lead to one.
The Indians picked up the momentum defensively in the second quarter getting several easy buckets, leading them to a five point halftime lead.
Van-Far saw its eventual 11-point lead cut to three heading into the final quarter, where the Indians took over the game.
Colin Wilburn and Verlyn Johnson came up big defensively and on the glass.
Van-Far outscored Milan 15-6 in the fourth quarter and won the game, 64-52.
“We showed the area the Indians are a quality team and are going to be a tough out,” Connaway said. “This year has the same feeling as last year. We were unranked all year long and no one thought we could do it and we proved people wrong and this team is doing the same thing. I can’t say enough about the kids, their desire to win, and their ability to buy into what Coach (Brett) Reading and I want.”
Van-Far won the rebounding margin 33-27.
Miller led the team with 25 points and seven rebounds; Caden Wilburn had 12 points; Verdell Johnson had 11 points; Verlyn Johnson added eight points and nine rebounds; while Colin Wilburn had eight points and seven rebounds.