Vermillion had lost to Elk Point-Jefferson by one point in four quarters during the regular season. When it mattered more, in the District 8A semifinals last Thursday, the Tanagers extended the Huskies a bit longer – two overtimes, in fact – but the result was the same.
EP-J rode the broad shoulders of Brock Zeller through a strong fourth-quarter comeback and through both overtime periods to win 68-63 and end the Vermillion season at 10-10.
Focusing on Zeller was a prime goal of the Tanagers going into what they expected would be another tough battle with the Huskies, and they succeeded in that mission for three quarters, holding Zeller to six points. But he took over the game after that, scoring nine of his team's 16 points in a frantic fourth quarter, four in the first overtime, then seven more in the second overtime. Unfortunately for everyone in the area except EP-J fans, Zeller, who finished with 26 points, is only a junior.
The disappointing fact for the Tanagers was that they had played themselves into position for a victory heading into the final period. They had staged a heartening rally from a 20-11 deficit with an 8-0 run in the second period to come to within 22-21 at halftime. They, too, played a strong third quarter and took a 35-31 lead into the final stanza.
Yet another point in Vermillion's favor was a stirring rally from almost certain defeat in the first overtime when they came from seven down with 1:45 left into a tie with 40 seconds to go. Down by two with the game apparently ending, the Tanagers got lucky when J.T. Sorensen scrambled for a rebound under his own basket and put up a successful shot at the last possible split-second to force a second overtime.
"They (EP-J) made some big plays and hit some big shots," Coach Jay Drake said. "We rallied in the first overtime, but in the second overtime we again had to scramble from behind."
Senior Nile Morecraft had seven points in a great first quarter as the Tanagers stepped ahead 11-7.
In the second their 8-0 run included four points from Austin Krier, a Nick Jensen field goal and a Tanner Anderson steal and layup. Another bucket by Jensen left VHS shy by a point at the intermission.
Down by two in the third, the Tanagers went on another 8-0 run on three-pointers by Morecraft and Krier and a basket by Caleb Miller. Later in the period a basket by Krier and two Jensen free throws gave VHS a six-point lead.
Three minutes into the fourth, the Tanagers were still in good shape, leading 42-37 after a trey by Anderson and a bucket by Sorensen. A Krier basket at the end of a VHS fast break made it 44-41 with 1:50 left. But over the remaining 110 seconds, the Tanagers victimized their own cause by missing the front end of a one-and-one and two out of four other free-throw chances. Any one of those could have won the game.
Zeller, fouled in the act of shooting, sank two free throws with 34 seconds left. A miss and a make at the line by the Tanagers left them still ahead 46-44 with 26 ticks left, but Zeller, fouled in a collision on an EP-J in-bounds pass, sank two more gift tosses at 0:11 to tie the game.
In the first O.T. the Tanagers appeared hopelessly out of it, down 55-48 with 1:45 left. But Krier and Sorensen each sank two free throws and Krier answered with a three-pointer with 40 seconds left, and suddenly it was 55-55. Zeller (who else?) made two EP-J free throws with 10 seconds left, and the Tanagers stayed alive with Sorensen's last-second shot to tie the contest again.
A three-pointer by Anderson gave VHS a 60-59 lead early in the second overtime, but that was the team's last gasp. While the Tanagers missed on three straight possessions, EP-J scored on all three of theirs and led 66-60.
The Huskies helped the Tanager cause by missing four free throws inside the last minute, but a layup by Krier and a free throw by Sorensen could get VHS no closer than 66-63. Then Zeller applied his crowning touch to the EP-J win with two more free throws with 15 seconds to go.
The Tanagers put four men in double figures in scoring, but it wasn't enough. Krier had 20, Anderson 11, Sorensen 10 and Morecraft 10 along with six from Jensen, three from Jayce Huska, two from Miller and one from Anthony Leber. Outrebounded 34-27, the Tanagers were led in that department by Sorensen's eight boards and five each by Leber and Morecraft. Krier had five assists and Anderson three.
"From a coaching staff viewpoint, the kids gave a great effort," Drake said. "We have to move on from here and look forward to next season." The Tanagers lose via graduation only Morecraft, Miller and Mitch Ellison.
Reaching double digits in wins and placing higher in the Big 8 Conference than last year were two goals Drake said his team accomplished this winter. "We feel we took it up another level," the coach said. "Now our goals are more time in the gym and the weight room so we can take another step and compete for district and regional titles next year."