MOUNT CARMEL, Ill. -- It took about a half to get there, but the Wabash Valley College Warriors found their groove in the second half and handily defeated Southwestern Illinois College 86-67 in a home game on Saturday.
The Warriors' offense struggled to score in the early going of the first half and trailed 24-17 with under seven minutes to go in the half. To their credit, they responded well. The Warriors quickly negated that deficit, with sophomores Josh Thomas and Anthony Christian starting a Warriors run. Thomas hit a 3-pointer, had a couple nice pull-ups and Christian out-muscled some Blue Storm defenders for a layup and knocked down a pair of free throws. The duo combined for 12 straight points, pushing the Warriors to a 28-25 lead and an 11-1 run.
"Tonight the response wasn't there as well in the six minute stretch and they know it, we talked about it after the game," WVC head coach Mike Carpenter said. "It's more of a mental thing right now, guys just need to be sharper mentally and they understand that. We'll correct it. After that, it wasn't like we drew up a magical play and ran some magical offense, it was the same stuff. They did a better job of it, they're capable of it and they know that. That's what's fun to have older guys, sophomore guys that have been through it. They don't panic in situations where we're not scoring the ball."
Thomas led the Warriors at the half with 12 points, five boards and a pair of steals.
At halftime the college announced their homecoming court, which featured Warrior sophomore Tanner McFall. McFall finished second in the court, but coach Carpenter said the team was advocating for students to vote for the sophomore. McFall jokingly said he should have won.
"I feel like the votes may have been stacked a little bit, not sure about the final result." McFall joked about finishing just shy of homecoming king.
WVC excelled in the second half and imposed their will on SWIC. Their ball movement was excellent in many of their frequent transition opportunities in the second half, allowing some open layup looks or nice 3-point looks. Their zone played a significant factor in their second half success.
"Our guys did a pretty good job tonight in the zone," coach Carpenter said. "It did change the tempo a little bit in our favor. Zones are tricky because if you go to them at the wrong time it can really look bad as well, if they hit a bunch of shots or threes in a row. That was a critical moment in the game, we were up seven or eight with about 12:30 left in the half. We ended up sticking with it the rest of the game and guys did a good job of talking, communicating. It just slowed them down, got them out of a rhythm.
Sophomore Chucky Wilson certainly did his best to get the crowd into it and get his teammates amped up, with a couple of highlight worthy dunk attempts. His jaw-dropping athleticism is a frequent sight when the sophomore guard's on the floor and Saturday was no different.
WVC would increase the lead to as much as 21 with 1:35 remaining on a dunk by sophomore guard Zion Morgan -- though Morgan received a technical for hanging on the rim after the dunk -- in a game that never appeared to be in doubt in the second half.
Thomas led all Warriors with 19 points and added seven rebounds. Christian finished his night with a 12-point, 12 rebound double-double. Joining the duo in double-digits was Wilson with 10 points and Levi Cook with 10 points.
Cook was the center of frequent SWIC double teams, with his 6-foot-10 frame presenting a matchup problem for the Blue Storm. Cook said the coaching staff identified the likely sent doubles in their scouting report, saying that he just had to be ready to pass when it came.
"They told us before the game, they saw that on the scouting report," Cook said. "They let me know that whoever passed me the ball, their man's going to come down and double, so we prepared for it in the past two days and I knew where the open man was going to be, so that's why I tried to pass right back out to the guard, then swing the ball and we get a shot."
Despite some struggles from behind the arc, the Warriors shot well from just about everywhere else. WVC shot 50.9 percent from the field despite a grueling 5 of 21 from 3-point range. They also shot a cool 82.1 percent from the charity stripe which was a nice sight to the eyes of coach Carpenter.
The Warriors controlled the glass with their significant size advantage, boasting a 40-24 rebound advantage over SWIC and allowing them to push the ball in transition in the 51 point second half for the Warriors.
"Yeah we were able to get out in transition and score and that's one of our strengths obviously," coach Carpenter said. "We have good athletes, our guards can bring the guard up the court, our bigs run the floor well. The transition game you don't have that without a rebound, we rebounded the ball well. That's why in the second half we got so many transition baskets, we rebounded the ball. In the first half we were tapping at the ball, they got a couple loose balls and it really slowed us down in that regard."
With the victory Wabash Valley stayed steady in the conference with an 8-2 record and improved to 13-6 overall. The Warriors have a couple games that separate them from a major challenge, a home game against John A. Logan (18-2), who sits undefeated in conference play.
The Warriors will first have a home game on Wednesday (Jan. 30) against non-conference foe Lewis and Clark starting at 7:30 p.m. The game will mark the beginning of an important three-game stretch. It's important the Warriors enter the John A. Logan game with positive momentum. Coach Carpenter insisted though that the Warriors' primary goal isn't winning the conference, it's winning the Region when that time comes in March.
"I'd rather be heading to Hutch and winning the region tournament than win the conference championship anyday," coach Carpenter said. "We'd like to be playing our best basketball in March, win that tournament, head out to Hutch and see what happens. We're going to take it a game at a time and 8-2's not a bad position to be in for sure, it's certainly better than 2-8. These guys have done a really good job.
Not to mention which we've said numerous times, I don't care what team it is in the conference, if you take their leading scorer from the year before, get injured like Marcus [Garrett] did, they're not sitting second in the conference right now, I don't care who it is. That's not to be arrogant, it's just the job these guys have done to lose a 20 point per game scorer to a knee injury game one of the season. The adjustment that they've made as a team on the fly has been remarkable. To still be up with a chance to win a conference championship, I could not be more proud of this group."
WVC -- 35 51 -- 86
SWIC -- 29 38 -- 67
WVC scoring: Thomas 7 3 19, Christian 3 6 12, Wilson 4 2 10, Cook 3 4 10, Morgan 4 0 9, Carpenter 3 3 9, Newsom 3 0 8, Yusuf 1 1 3, Gross 1 0 2, Boyd 0 2 2, Alleruzzo 0 2 2.