MOUNT CARMEL -- Anytime you play the No. 2 ranked team in the country, you better bring your best. Wabash Valley College head men's basketball coach Mike Carpenter knew his Warriors were poised for an uphill battle.
Facing No. 2 ranked Vincennes University, the No. 25 Warriors were riding a 10-game winning streak and riding a load of confidence. They gave the Trailblazers their best shot for much of the game, but lost the top 25 clash to the Trailblazers 69-59 on Friday night at Wabash Valley College.
Coming out of the gate, I'm not sure the Warriors could have played any better. A nearly sold out crowd was on hand for the game, a crowd that coach Carpenter deemed the largest he's seen at Wabash Valley and he felt his team fed off it especially early. Vincennes (29-1) started off seemingly complacent and the Warriors took it right to them. Wabash Valley clearly liked sophomore Levi Cook's matchup in the post and fed him the ball early and often. Initially, the Trailblazers seemed content with matching up with Cook man-to-man, but he outmuscled his matchup and forced the Trailblazers to throw double teams at the 6-foot-10 big. Cook scored four early points on a pair of smooth low post moves.
A slew of offensive fouls called against the Trailblazers were met with anguish by Vincennes head Todd Franklin, who earned a technical for expressing his disagreement with the officials about the calls. The Warriors elected to send sophomore guard Josh Thomas to the line to shoot the pair of free throws to give the Warriors a 13-8 lead.
Wabash Valley collectively came out strong, attacking the basket and had a hot shooting start. A sophomore guard Chucky Wilson offensive board and tip-in gave the Warriors an early 25-15 advantage over the Trailblazers and it seemed, even if momentarily, that Warrior fans could see an upset. Vincennes vanquished any hopes of that pretty quickly.
The Trailblazers showed why they're deservingly ranked No. 2 in the nation. That lead was quickly relinquished and Vincennes ended the half on a 16-4 run over the final eight minutes. Wabash Valley, in a change from early on in the half, couldn't buy a bucket late in the half as Vincennes ramped up their defensive intensity. Vincennes entered the break with a 31-29 lead.
"They did," coach Carpenter spoke of the Trailblazers' stretch. "They're not going to go away, you're not going to blow them out, they're not going to panic. We were feeding off the crowd and being at home and it's just frustrating because we had 25 points and just stopped. We were doing that in the first part of the season it didn't matter who we put out there, the same thing was going on. That was, one pass to one side of the floor and that person was going to try to make a play. We only get so many timeouts to talk about that, they don't give us extra ones because we ask about them. There's a such thing as over-trying in a game like this. We had several guys in that first half during that stretch that just tried too hard."
"Proud of our effort, our kids played extremely hard," coach Carpenter said. "If you would have told me yesterday or last week that we'd be at halftime in a two-point game with the No. 2 team in the country, I'd say let's do it.
It seemed as if the rolls were just going against the Warriors in the second half. The ball continuously just found its way to the Trailblazers hands and they too advantage. The Warriors fought early and kept within 42-37 following an offensive rebound and putback by freshman Amir Yusuf, but Vincennes started to pull away.
Wabash Valley switched to a zone as they tried to throw a different look at the Trailblazers but it wasn't quite effective. Vincennes was amidst a scorching shooting start in the half and coolly knocked down three 3-pointers against the Warriors zone, sparking a 13-3 run and forcing the Warriors back to man-to-man.
"Defensively I couldn't be prouder of their effort," coach Carpenter said. "It just seemed like to us that we would get them to take a shot as the shot clock went down, it'd be a tough shot and then the ball would be batted around and they'd get it. That seemed to happen seven or eight times. It just didn't bounce our way at times. But I'd rather get the win in the tournament than tonight."
With six minutes remaining Vincennes increased the lead to 61-44 and any comeback hopes seemed grim.
They battled through some late adversity and trimmed the lead down to 63-53 following a 19-foot jumper by Cook. Coach Carpenter called a timeout to gather his team for a final three minutes, needing to be near perfect.
Wabash Valley turned it over on their first possession, but followed it up with a pair of free throws by Cook and a swipe and transition layup by sophomore Zion Morgan to bring the score to 63-57 with under two minutes remaining, capping a 13-2 Warrior run.
The Trailblazers regathered and put the game on ice, capping a heartbreaking home loss for the Warriors in their final home game of the season.
Cook and Morgan led the Warriors attack in the game and stayed impressively aggressive throughout. Cook finished his day with 20 points and seven boards, Morgan finished with 12 points and seven boards. Vincennes did an excellent job of closing many driving lanes defensively, limiting Thomas to just seven points for the Warriors on 2-of-11 shooting. The Trailblazers were led by Keith Clemons' 21 points.
The Warriors were limited to 2 of 15 from behind the arc, a stark contrast to Vincennes' 6 of 13. Coach Carpenter felt his players were just too tenative from deep and didn't seem confident.
"We've had games this year where we've made 13, 14 [threes]," coach Carpenter said. "We can shoot the ball, we have to have guys out there that want to shoot it. Cam Gross is one, Justin Boyd. They passed up shots tonight and we don't want them to do that. It's end of the season here, we don't have time to send messages here, we have to play with what we got. We're not changing anything. We just won 17 of our last 19 games, we're doing something right. We just played the No. 2 team in the country, it's not time to throw everything against the wall and start over and say, what's wrong with this team. There's nothing wrong with this team."
Wabash Valley's bench had been a major factor for the Warriors over the course of their 10-game winning streak. Against Vincennes, just five points total from the bench. That's a number that has to change going forward for the Warriors to be successful.
"Against Kaskaskia our bench scored 48 points. Tonight our bench scored five points."
Wabash Valley (22-7) will end its season on Saturday against Lincoln Trail prior to beginning the Region XXIV Tournament next week (on Tuesday) as either the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, now that John A. Logan lost to Olney Central. Coach Carpenter says that his team welcomes a rematch with Vincennes and added he'd rather win in the tournament than in the regular season.
"I think judging from our players reactions in the locker room, they want to have it happen, they want to play them again," coach Carpenter said. "I've never questioned the want to of this group, they want to do the right thing, what we ask.
V -- 31 38 -- 69
WVC -- 29 30 -- 59
WVC Scoring: Cook 6 8 20, Morgan 6 0 12, Wilson 3 3 9, Thomas 2 2 7, Christian 3 0 6, Burks 1 0 3, Yusuf 1 0 2.