Van Buren girls basketball coach Matt Zeitler has full confidence that his team can beat anyone in Class 2A, Region 6.
That being said, Zeitler was the first to point out just how lucky his team was to escape their opening postseason game on Saturday at Pekin.
Despite almost literally throwing away a win against the Panthers, Zeitler still has plenty of confidence in his team following their 35-34 regional first round win. It was a victory that was, literally, up in the air until the final buzzer as a tipped Van Buren pass found it’s way into the hands of Pekin’s Samantha Wright under Van Buren’s own basket.
Unfortunately for Wright and the Panthers, the clock hit zero before a last-second shot could be put up.
“We tried to give it away, but that’s all right,” Zeitler said. “It’s one game and you either go on or you’re done. A lot of things make you nervous, but the girls did what they needed to do.”
Ultimately, Van Buren needed to do to get by the young Panthers was something that the Warriors aren’t normally known for. Pekin’s focus defensively to neutralize the Warriors’ post presence in senior Hannah Haynes left Van Buren looking for perimeter shots.
Despite hitting an average of just over four 3-pointers a game entering the night, Van Buren hoisted 25 shots from beyond the arc. Though the Warriors hit just five, they came at key moments to help Van Buren open their largest leads of the night.
Kaitlyn Johnson hit three in the first half, including two in a row that helped Van Buren open a 13-6 lead. The last two came from Jordan Billups, who picked a great time to score six of her team-high 11 points as the senior hit back-to-back treys late in the fourth quarter to snap a 28-all tie.
“Being a senior, it just means a lot to me to move on and I know it means a lot to anyone that was asked to step up,” Billups said. “We can’t always get the ball down to Hannah. We try to, but sometimes people on the outside have to hit shots. That’s what I went for.”
Pekin head coach Davis Eidahl talked about the valiant effort of his young team, which included excellent execution the longtime head coach’s defensive game plan. Unfortunately for the Panthers, the 10-point second-half effort of Billups was too much to overcome.
“I was really pleased with our girls. They really played hard in that zone,” Pekin head coach Davis Eidahl said. “It’s one thing to try and shut down and one star player. If they can have a great inside player and an great outside threat, that’s tough to beat.”
It was Pekin’s defense that gave the Panthers all the opportunities in the world to knock off the 17-5 Warriors. Three-straight steals led to three-straight lay-ups in the closing minutes of the first half as Pekin erased a 13-6 deficit and tied the game at the half.
“They’re defense was great all night,” Billups said. “We needed to step up all around the court to meet that challenge.”
Pekin didn’t let up in the second half, outscoring Van Buren 10-7 in the third quarter to take a 3-point lead into the fourth quarter. After picking up three fouls in the first half, Haynes couldn’t get back on her double-double pace as the area’s top scorer was limited a season-low nine points.
“It was incredibly tough to get anything going,” Haynes said. “It’s hard to get going when you’re being guarded by three people. I’ve never really had that kind of struggle.”
Even with Haynes struggling, Van Buren worked their way back into the lead at 28-25 before Gwynne Wright nailed the Panthers lone 3-pointer to tie the score midway through the fourth quarter. The Warriors answered right back on the next possession as Billiups hit the first of her consecutive 3-pointers to put Van Buren up 34-28.
Pekin, however, refused to give us as the Panthers collected three more of their 15 steals to close the gap to 34-33 with 43.9 seconds left. After both Samantha and Gwynne Wright missed a pair of go-ahead shots, Haynes hit a free throw to give Van Buren a two-point lead with 9.9 seconds left.
Then came a bizarre moment as Pekin inbounded the basketball after a timeout. Zeitler and the Van Buren coaches immediately called for a sixth Panther player on the floor.
“There were six kids on the court at that time. There just was,” Zeitler said. “I’ve been teed up for arguing that before, so I know. Somebody had to have seen her. There are three refs out there.”
Samantha Wright instead drew a shooting foul with 3.1 seconds left, giving the Panther junior a chance to tie the game from the line. Wright, however, missed the first free throw before hitting the second to complete a game-best 13-point effort. Wright would not get a chance to hit a season-extending shot despite collecting her fifth steal on the final pass of the night.
“I heard a few players say for the first time in three years that they’re really looking forward to basketball season next year,” Eidahl said after the Panthers wrapped up a 10-12 season with. “They went out and played hard. That’s definitely how you’d want a team to finish it’s season.”
Van Buren, meanwhile, moves on for a tough Class 2A, Region 6 second round test at Pella Christian on Tuesday.
“We’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for Pella Christian, which kind of left us unprepared for Pekin,” Zeitler said. “I fully expect us to come out and put forth a great effort on Tuesday.”
Class 2A, Region 6 First Round
Van Buren 35, Pekin 34
V.B. 9 4 7 15 — 35
Pekin 6 7 10 11 — 34
Van Buren (35) — Jordan Billups 11, Hannah Haynes 9, Kaitlyn Johnson 9, Payten Hughes 4, Shayla Filson 2. Totals 14-49 2-7 35.
3-point goals — 5-25 (Johnson 3-15, Billups 2-5, Libby King 0-1, Hughes 0-2, Abbey Rider 0-2). Rebounds — 39 (Haynes 13, Billups 8, Johnson 7, Filson 3, Rider 3, Sarah Wells 2, Hughes, Jenna Thornburg, Tayt Weibal). Assists — 10 (Haynes 4, Johnson 3, Sidney Atwood, Filson, Rider). Steals — 6 (Billups 2, Filson, Hughes, Johnson, Rider). Blocks — 5 (Haynes 4, Billups). Total fouls — 15. Turnovers — 20.
Pekin (34) — Samantha Wright 13, Gwynne Wright 12, Beth Atwood 8, Jessica Horras 1. Totals 11-49 11-17 34.
3-point goals — 1-12 (G. Wright 1-7, S. Wright 0-5). Rebounds — 40 (Atwood 8, S. Wright 8, G. Wright 7, Horras 6, Madelyn Baker 3, Sloan Reinhard 3, Jacinta Cooley 2, Monica Cooley 2, Tiana Slaney). Assists — 3 (Horras, G. Wright, S. Wright). Steals — 15 (Atwood 5, S. Wright 5, G. Wright 2, Baker, Cooley, Horras). Blocks — 0. Total fouls — 11. Turnovers — 17.