WESTVILLE — Let the chase begin.
Four games into what will be a 13-game boys’ basketball schedule in the Vermilion Valley Conference, the league co-leader is a Westville team that hasn’t won a conference title during the first eight years of the VVC’s existence.
The Tigers established themselves as one of the teams to beat Friday, pulling out a pulsating come-from-behind victory over state-ranked Salt Fork, 41-38. With less than three minutes to play, the Tigers — who trailed by eight in the second quarter — were down by four points.
“In the fourth quarter, we took care of the ball (one turnover), and Tanner Cox ran the club very well,” Westville coach Jeff Millis said. “Cerebrally, he took care of running the offense.”
The comeback started with a three-pointer by Jeffery Thompson from the top of the key with 2:43 remaining, bringing the Tigers within 38-37.
Robert Elliott converted a three-point play at the 1:04 mark and Westville led 40-38. The Storm committed two turnovers in the final 49 seconds and Elliott added a free throw for the last of his team-high 13 points with 22.4 seconds left, creating the final score.
“One reason we won is we didn’t panic (when trailing 19-11) in the second quarter,” Millis said. “We methodically got ourselves back into the game. In that situation, if you panic you can go from down eight to down 16.”
With the same starting five as he had a year ago, Millis expected team composure to be a strength.
“They’ve grown up physically, and mentally, they are tougher,” Millis said, “but there are still a lot of things we can improve on.”
Another strength are the decisions made by players such as Kyle Brazas and Layn White. Brazas scored 10 first-half points but never attempted another shot.
“Kyle lets the game come to him,” Millis said, “and Layn didn’t force things.”
Collectively, Brazas and White knocked down 7 of 9 field goal attempts.
Elliott was 4 of 6. Westville was able to overcome a double-double by Max Stutsman (17 points, 15 rebounds).
“He is big, and he is good,” Millis said. “He is a load inside.”
Stutsman personally outrebounded the Tigers 15-14.
“He didn’t touch the ball enough,” Salt Fork coach Andrew Johnson said, “and that’s a credit to Westville’s (double-teaming) defense. We have to find ways to get him the basketball.”
Four of Stutsman’s eight baskets were on putbacks. He had 13 shots.
The Tigers’ defense buckled down in the second half. Salt Fork (14-2) hit 11 of 19 first-half shots, but just 6 of 20 thereafter. Brazas was among the catalysts.
“Kyle’s defense is light years ahead of last year,” Millis said. “He has turned into a very good defensive player.”
Johnson cited defense as the critical factor.
“They played good, physical basketball and stayed disciplined,” he said. “They didn’t go for the fakes. Their kids stepped up their game.”
Thompson scored 11 points for Westville. White scored six. Elliott’s five rebounds were a team high. Ross Learnard added eight points for the Storm.