By PAUL HINES
Effingham used a strong start and stingy defense to hold off Mt. Vernon 42-36 Wednesday night in the opening round of the Salem Invitational Tournament.
The Flaming Hearts opened the game strong against the Rams and jumped to a 14-3 lead. Mt. Vernon never lead in the game but chipped away at the early deficit using outside shooting.
“That was a great start,” Effingham coach Ron Reed said. “It’s important because Mt. Vernon does such a great job of controlling tempo, and they get a lot of great shots. That was a big key tonight was us coming out.”
Hunter Keith led Effingham with 12 points. Michael Feezer was perfect from the field for the Rams and led the team with 10 points.
“(We were) not ready to go is what it looked like, especially on the defensive end,” Mt. Vernon coach Scott Gamber said. “Offensively we’re fine we just didn’t score. That happens. Defensively we were completely out of it to start the game. We gave up a lot of layups.”
Down 21-9 midway through the second quarter, Trevor Flota and Braden Fitzjerrells shot Mt. Vernon back into the game. Flota knocked down a 3- pointer to slice the Effingham lead to 21-15. After a Hunter Keith basket, Fitzjerrells hit back-to-back treys. The second turned into a four-point play after a Flaming Hearts foul. The baskets made the score 23-19.
Effingham took a 25-19 advantage into halftime and held a 31-24 lead going into the fourth.
Throughout the game the size and length of Effingham consistently bothered the Rams.
“They got the ball around the basket a lot,” Gamber said. “But more so they did not let us get the ball anywhere we wanted to. They took away all of our stuff. They denied things. They did a really nice job of using their size to their advantage.”
Mt. Vernon made another run in the final quarter, cutting the Effingham lead down to 35-30 after a Shakari Hawkins basket with five minutes left.
Fitzjerrells helped Mt. Vernon creep closer with a layup to cut the deficit to three points.
But Effingham’s Clark Williamson answered immediately on the other end with a score of his own with two minutes left. The Rams were forced to foul down the stretch to slow the clock, and the Flaming Hearts three of four free throws in the final minute.
Mt. Vernon is 9-8 this season and plays the loser of the Edwardsville-Mattoon matchup at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. Effingham faces the winner at 7 p.m. Friday.