FINAL FOUR NOTEBOOK: Vermillion finds calm in big moment for Advance boys basketball
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Moments after the Advance boys basketball team secured its first trip to a state title game in 42 years, Hornets coach Bubba Wheetley sat between players Armani Vermillion and Preston Wuebker in the postgame press conference at Mizzou Arena.
When a question was asked about Vermillion's 38 points in the game, the coach turned and looked at his junior guard.
"You had 38 points? Dang," Wheetley said. "I didn't know that. That's great."
The reality is that it's just what Vermillion does now-a-days. His output in the Class 1 semifinal against North Andrew on Thursday wasn't even his largest offensive output of the season.
Not even second largest.
But his most recent performance was the most awe-inspiring.
Vermillion has begun to carve out a reputation as a cool customer who shows up in a big way in big games.
Since the postseason has begun, the Hornet standout has scored at least 20 points in every outing but one -- when he scored 19 against Bell City in the district championship.
For those that hadn't been paying attention, he opened eyes in the Southeast Missourian Christmas Tournament, scoring 18, 26, 15 and 19 points while helping the Hornets to a runner-up finish. And his 15-point game saw him score some of the most critical baskets in an overtime win over Jackson.
Now he's introduced himself to the entire state.
All of those performances are well and fine, but to do it under the bright lights of the Show-Me Showdown is another story.
North Andrew had lost just once all season, had won 15 games in a row and was considered by many to be the Class 1 favorite.
But it had no answer for Vermillion.
"I just try to play my game and take open shots," the junior said. "If [the shots] go in, they go in. If they don't, hustle on defense, try to get the ball back and do whatever you can to help the team."
On Thursday, he began the game 6 of 6 from the field. He hit 3-pointers (3 of 4 from outside the arc), got to the rim and punished the Cardinals in transition late in the game.
The test will be even bigger Saturday against Walnut Grove. The stage will be bigger, too, and that seems to be just the way Vermillion likes it.
Just another game
If you're looking for clues as to why Vermillion's day seemed so effortless under pressure, look no further than the Hornets' approach to the day.
Despite the big arena, large crowds, bright lights and intense atmosphere, the Advance players didn't hesitate to say it felt no different than usual.
"It's just another game at a different court," Vermillion said. "We're all playing basketball. It's just a different gym."
Wuebker echoed the sentiment.
"Before the game, I figured I'd get a little more pumped up than normal," Wuebker said, "but I actually felt the same as I always do before a normal game. Honestly, all the JV kids, they were all pumped up. They were like, 'Oh my gosh, this is so awesome.'"
Another Oran escape
It's been quite the postseason of excitement for the Oran boys basketball team.
Sure, making a run to the state title game is thrilling, but the fashion in which the Eagles have done so has kept fans on the edge of their seats.
It started with a 53-47 nailbiter in a sectional game against Hayti, continued with a 55-52 rally against defending champion Hartville in a quarterfinal and again on Thursday.
Falling into an early hole before trading punches in the final seconds, the Eagles again found a way to win against Sacred Heart.
"I think there were seven or eight games last year that we lost that were single digits, one-possession ball games, and I think these guys have learned from that tremendously. And it's showing this year," Oran coach Joe Shoemaker said.
In the Class 2 semifinal against the Gremlins, the Eagles were without two key scorers -- Cole Priggel and Jacob Shoemaker -- in the final minutes due to fouls and still found a way to win.
After the game, Jacob Shoemaker said he had confidence others were going to be able to pick up the slack.
That's not surprising for a team that has every reason to believe right now that no matter the situation, it can find ways to win.
"I think we always have a lot of confidence in ourself at the end of the game because, like, last year we lost seven or eight ball games by one point, and we learned from that last year how to make big plays and how to make stops and rebound," Max Priggel said.
Rivals side by side
The Advance and Oran boys basketball teams haven't always been thrilled to see each other.
For years as rivals, whether district or geographical, the two have tried to knock each other down. Just last month, the Eagles defeated the Hornets late in the regular season.
Just the thought of that makes Max Priggel smile and pump his fist -- a small bit of retribution for the heartbreak Advance has caused Oran by defeating it in the district championship the three seasons leading up to this one.
But fate separated the two programs this season with district and class realignment, and while a move to Class 2 may have appeared to be a challenge for the Eagles, instead it cleared their path of the Hornets.
Now, on the final day of basketball for small schools this season, both teams will be playing for a state championship.
"It's very nice," coach Shoemaker said. "We've got a good rivalry going with them. It's a good-natured rivalry, also. They're good kids, good program over there. We respect them. They respect us. They finished our season the last three years previously in districts."
On Thursday, the rivals instead found themselves forming cheering sections for the other. It's a stark contrast from the dynamic in recent years, but one both schools surely are happy to embrace.
"We got them at the end of the year, which felt good, and they're a quality program," Shoemaker said. "To have a school so close to you that's up here with you is nice. I saw them up in the stands cheering us on.
"Hopefully we can return that favor."
The Oran boys weren't the only Eagles to struggle with foul trouble on Thursday.
The Oran girls had to play large chunks of their Class 2 semifinal loss to Adrian without two starters, as lone senior Brianna Stause and freshman Kaylee Payne picked up early fouls.
Each had two fouls within the first six minutes of the game, leading Oran coach Ethan Evans to limit their time on the floor, and Stause had four fouls by the end of the third quarter.
"It's been a problem for us the last few games when the officiating gets a lot tighter, and that's how it should be," Evans said. "We get away with a lot of stuff sometimes we shouldn't. We preach to the girls, 'Hey, we've got to play. We've got to move our feet. Move defense with your feet, not your hands.'"
While the other three starters all logged more than 30 minutes apiece, Stause and Payne saw 21 and 23 minutes, respectively.
The Eagles were still able to make some runs, but Stause, a streaky 3-point shooter, never had a chance to get hot.
"We need her to get hot from 3," Evans said, "and it seems when she finally makes one in the third quarter, she picks up her fourth foul right after that. And I thought 'Man, if we could have kept her out there, maybe she could have got hot and went on a streak.' She's a streaky shooter, but that's not the way it happened.
"Luckily it's not the last game for her. We've got another game to build on to get some more experience at state."