By Paul Hines
Mt. Vernon ended with a split on the opening day of the Effingham-Teutopolis Christmas Classic on Friday.
The Rams opened with a loss to Teutopolis 55-42 but knocked off Mattoon 64-48 in the nightcap.
“I thought our kids just a million times better getting into our offense, running our sets,” Mt. Vernon coach Scott Gamber said after the Mattoon win.
Mt. Vernon used a strong second half to pull away from Mattoon in the second game. The Rams were able to silence Mattoon's burly center Tanner Scott in the second half. Scott hurt the Rams for a dozen points in the opening half but finished with a modest 16.
“I thought our kids did a really nice job helping on (Scott) after that initial start,” Gamber said.
The Rams also used the athletic ability of forward Shakari Hawkins. The senior knifed his way into the Green Wave defense throughout the game. He and Braden Fitzjerrells finished with 22 each to pace the Rams.
After a close battle in the opening half, Mt. Vernon used a late run to take a 29-20 edge into halftime. The Rams extended the margin with a big third quarter. Hawkins scored 11 of Mt. Vernon's 23 points in the period, and the Rams coasted to a 52-36 lead. Jake Pike capped the quarter with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that rattled around and down. Pike finished with 15 points.
“That's the best quarter we've played probably since the Thanksgiving tournament,” Gamber said. “We desperately needed that.”
Mattoon never threatened in the final period.
The Rams are 8-3 this season.
Teutopolis 55, Mt. Vernon 42
The Wooden Shoes blew open a close game with a 16-0 run in the final 4:42 against the Rams.
“(It was) lack of toughness, lack of heart,” Mt. Vernon coach Scott Gamber said. “I don't know what else there is to say because you don't finish out a game like that if you have either one of those, and that was very poor.”
Braden Fitzjerrells led the Rams with 18 points, and Shakari Hawkins added 14.
The game was close throughout until the final few minutes when Teutopolis racked up easy buckets on its end while the Rams fired up a host of misses on their side.
Teutopolis' Cody Will burned the Rams early from the outside. He hit a trio of threes in the opening quarter and finished the game with 21 points to lead all scorers.
“(We) did a very poor job on (Will) in the first half, and then I thought we let their guards get around us way too easy,” Gamber said. “It should not be that easy to get around us. We have to do a lot better job there.”
The Wooden Shoes paired Will's shooting ability with the strength of Brett Mette on the inside. Mette bulled his way to 11 points and eight rebounds.
Behind Will's hot shooting start, Teutopolis built a 12-8 edge going into the second quarter.
That's when Hawkins started dominating offensively. The Rams forward repeatedly slashed his way through the Wooden Shoes defense for baskets. Hawkins scored 10 in the quarter, and the helped the Rams seize a brief lead before trailing 26-25 at the half.
Mt. Vernon regained the lead again in the third quarter when Fitzjerrells lined up a 3-pointer and dripped it in. The basket gave Mt. Vernon a 32-30 lead. Fitzjerrells followed with a layup to give Mt. Vernon a 34-30 lead.
Mt. Vernon held a slim margin in the opening portion of the final quarter. Another Fitzjerrells score made the margin 42-39 midway through the fourth.
But Mt. Vernon wouldn't tally another point for the final 4:42.
Teutopolis drove to the basket for several layups and increased its growing margin at the foul line.
Mt. Vernon finished with 20 turnovers.
“We've given our kids freedom this year that we haven't given them in a long time, and we're not going to give them that freedom much longer,” Gamber said. “After this tournament is over, we may have to get back to Mt. Vernon basketball where we're working it every possession for a good shot.”