After the first period, it looked like the Van Horn boys basketball team was on its way to a rout of the visiting Oak Grove Panthers.
Although the Panthers later came back and made it a game, the Falcons never seemed like they would lose control and even led by 14 points midway through the third quarter.
However, there has been one major Achilles’ heel for the Falcons so far through nine games – the inability to close out games. That weakness reared its head Tuesday as Oak Grove trailed the entire game until 35.9 seconds remained. Behind the clutch play of senior guard Tully Thomsen, the Panthers stormed back for a 57-54 victory.
“It just goes back to trusting your teammates and doing what we do in practice at the end of games as opposed to doing what you want to do for the scorebook,” Falcons coach Max Sollars said. “As a team, we were playing to not lose, as opposed to playing to win.
“It was the ol’ Van Horn demons. When it gets crunch time, that’s how we come up.”
Oak Grove trailed 44-38 going into the fourth before a 3-pointer from Van Horn junior guard Jaden Monday made it 51-41 early in the period. But the Panthers (5-3) played strong defense and went on a 14-3 run before two free throws from Thomsen, who had a game-high 30 points, put Oak Grove up for the first time at 55-54.
“We were ugly and disorganized tonight,” first-year Oak Grove coach Dustin Fox said. “At times, I didn’t know what I was watching. We got guys that responded. When we went from down three to up three to win it, we had four rebounds in a row, and Tully was a part of that.”
Following Van Horn’s 10-point lead in the fourth, the Falcons turned it over three times, shot 1 of 6 from the field and missed all three of their free throw attempts.
Before that happened, Monday missed a layup while double-teamed with about 40 seconds left as Van Horn (4-5) clung to a one-point lead.
Falcons senior Caleb Tanis missed a shot on the other end while trailing by one and Thomsen got the rebound and sank 1 of 2 free throws after a foul. Van Horn freshman Korey Messick got the rebound on the miss and was fouled, but missed both of his free throws. Oak Grove got the rebound and once again, Thomsen made 1 of 2 free throws, still keeping the door open for Van Horn to tie it down 57-54 with 9.6 seconds left.
After a pair of timeouts, Monday sprinted down the baseline, curled to the right wing for a 3-point attempt, but the shot hit back iron and missed as time expired.
“We found a way to stay together,” Oak Grove senior guard Brenden Marsh said. “You can’t ask for a better group of guys to pick you up.”
Oak Grove made the comeback partly due to some timely baskets from Marsh, who scored 13 of his second 16 points in the second half, which included two treys.
“Brenden plays so hard,” Thomsen said. “He plays with the most heart out of anyone I’ve ever played with.”
But in the fourth period, it was the Thomsen show, as he continued to find ways to get to the free throw line and make baskets despite drawing double- and triple-teams. He scored 11 in the fourth period. He also added six rebounds and four steals.
“I saw it a little bit in the first half,” Thomsen said of drawing double- and triple-teams. “Then I had to adjust in the second half and know that it was going to come early.”
Van Horn led 21-8 after one period as they forced a handful of turnovers and got out in transition consistently for the first eight minutes. Tanis got off to a hot start, scoring 10 of his 18 points in the first quarter, including a one-handed baseline dunk.
Oak Grove began the second on an 11-0 run but Monday kept the Falcons afloat with nine of his team-high 21 points to make it 35-23 going into halftime.
The Panthers then focused on stopping Monday in the second half as they cut the deficit to six going into the final period before pulling out the victory.
“(Stopping Monday) is really hard to do as you can tell,” Thomsen said. “We talked about not letting him split early. Not letting him penetrate opened up opportunities for us to rotate and slide more.”
Senior Adrian Chavira was the other Falcon in double figures with 12 points.