By Paul Hines
MT. VERNON —
The Rams start the Salem Invitational Tournament against the host school tonight.
Salem and Mt. Vernon faced earlier this season in the Herrin Pyramid Plus Tournament. The Rams emerged with a blowout 74-47 win, but Salem trailed by just five points at halftime.
“We came out a little flat, and they did a nice job early in the game hurting us,” Mt. Vernon coach Scott Gamber said. “They led after one quarter, and we were barely up at the half.”
The Rams will face a Salem squad that has changed since the first meeting. Joey Toliver and Donte Rush combined to score 19 of the Wildcats' points. Gamber said Rush quit the team and Toliver suffered an injury that is expected to keep him out of tonight's game.
“They're missing a couple of kids, but when a team's missing somebody sometimes they'll rally around them,” Gamber said.
That leaves more scoring burden on Nick Conklin, who finished with eight points and six rebounds against the Rams. Chance McCay also had eight points in the first meeting.
The winner of the Mt. Vernon-Salem matchup faces the winner of the Edwardsville-Lovejoy game on Friday night. A season ago, the Rams opened the Salem tournament with a loss to Effingham.
Mt. Vernon enters the tournament after a loss to rival Centralia. Mt. Vernon trailed by double digits and closed the deficit to a single point in the final minutes before the Orphans pulled away again.
Braden Fitzjerrells has seen large chunks of time operating the point guard position since the Effingham-Teutopolis Christmas tournament. Gamber said he will play both the point and secondary guard positions against Salem.
“I think it's important for us to play Braden at the two more,” Gamber said. “What's nice about having someone like Braden is that you can play him at the one, and he's a very, very good point guard. You can play him at the two, and he's a really good two. I just think he's more effective in that two spot where he's receiving the ball.”
Tonight's game starts at 8:30 p.m.