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PAXTON – Going into the Sangamon Valley as underdogs, the No. 6-seeded Panthers opened the floodgates against the No. 3 team in St. Thomas More.
Axl Denault got things started with two 3-pointers and a fastbreak layup to put Paxton-Buckley-Loda up 8-0. The lead would extend to 13-0 before the Sabers’ Kyler Jones hit a trey, and the Panthers ended the first quarter with a 20-10 advantage.
The run would not last, however, as STM outscored the Panthers 28-9 in the next two quarters en route to a 53-48 victory.
"We came out really strong in the first quarter, and then as the game wore on, we just kind of faded for whatever reason," PBL head coach Scot Vogel said. "Weve just got to take care of the ball better. We had six straight possessions where they wree just empty because we turned the ball over or we rushed a shot. We went away from the things we were really doing well in the first quarter. It's just frustrating. As a coach, you want a full game so bad and I know they want it, but at some point, we've got to get it done on the floor for a full game. You've just got to."
Jeremy Walder added five first-quarter points -- including one of PBL's nine 3-point field goals -- en route to a game total of nine points.
After Jones hit another trey during an 8-0 STM run that cut its deficit to 13-8, Jay Eshleman mad a shot from beyond the arc to initiate a 7-2 run with which PBL (10-11) ended the first quarter.
“They came out on fire and play well from the get-go, and we had to battle back,” STM head coach Matt Kelley said. “They’re a good team and they ran a great offense, so we had to battle back.”
After Johnny Walder hit another shot from downtown early in the second quarter to extend the Panthers’ lead to 23-10, the Sabers (13-7) scored the next four points, including a fastbreak layup for Andrew Young via Storm Joop assist. Following a Denault field goal, STM finished the first half with a 9-0 run – including five points from Joop and four from Michael Plecki – to go into halftime trailing 25-23.
"Late in the second quarter, they went on a run because we had eight straight possessions where we came up with empty possessions," Vogel said. "Then we started off the second half the game way. We had four straight possessions that were empty. You can't spot a team that many extra possessions and expect to hold and maintain leads. That's just things we've just got to understand that we've got to continue to get better at."
The Sabers continued their run in the third quarter, scoring the next six points to take a 29-25. They allowed only four points to the Panthers en route to a 38-29 lead going into the fourth quarter.
"Our kids work on the press in practice. Our kids bring it and they play hard all the time," Kelley said. "That's never been an issue. I know that they're always going to play hard, and when you play hard, it leads to good things."
Joop meanwhile, made two 3-pointers in the third quarter en route to a game-high 17 points.
"He shot the ball and kind of opened up the defense for us a little bit," Kelley said. "Him shooting well really helped us get back into it."
In the fourth quarter, the Panthers rallied back with a 14-6 run, including two 3-pointers from Eshleman, to cut their deficit to 44-43. They could not get over the hump, however, as STM’s Josh Koerner scored five points during a 9-2 run that iced the game.
"We had a rally there," Vogel said. "We just couldn't make the big play, and right now that the hump that we've really been strugging to get over. We can't get the key score or that key stop. I think it's starting to wear on us mentally a little bit, and we've just got to put this game behind us be be ready to play. We've got to keep grinding, and hopefully it'll all click."
Denault finished the game as PBL's high scorer with 16 points while Eshleman scored in double figures as well with 11 points.
"I thought that Axl had a really strong game," Vogel said. "That was good to see. We've just got to get five guys consistent every night. That's the biggest thing that's hurting us right now. Drew (Schrodt) only took four attempts. We've got to have him be a lot more aggressive than that. Tyler (Rubarts), who's been pretty aggressive, had maybe four or six attempts. Guys have got to be more aggressive. We've got to take care of the ball better and value possessions."
The Panthers will play in the consolation semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Friday against No. 7-seeded Momence – which lost to No. 2 Cissna Park 48-45 – in Gilman.
"That's a key game," Vogel said. "We could see them possibly three times now since we're also playing them on Friday, (Feb. 15). It'll be nice to get them in the conference game, and that's a possible regional matchup, so we just have to see what's going on and go from there and keep grinding."
St. Thomas More 53, PBL 48
Vaughn Gentzler 0-0-0, Jay Eshleman 4-0-11, Tyler Rubarts 0-2-2, Weston Weber 0-0-0, Axl Denault 6-1-16, Jeremy Walder 4-1-9, Drew Schrodt 2-0-4, Johnny Walder 2-0-6. Totals 18-3-48.
Andrew Young 1-0-2, Kyler Jones 5-1-13, Storm Joop 6-2-17, Michael Plecki 3-0-6, Brad Fritchey 1-0-2, Josh Koerner 2-3-7, Kevin Carroll 2-2-6. Totals 20-8-53
PBL 20 5 4 19 -- 48
STM 10 13 23 15 -- 53
3-pointers -- PBL 9 (Eshleman 3, Denault 3, Jo. Walder 2, Je. Walder), STM 5 (Joop 3, Jones 2).