PAXTON — Astronomers earlier this month discovered Earth had gained a new mini-moon, estimated at roughly the width of a car. It’ll eventually leave Earth’s orbit because of its size, but the asteroid is sticking around for now.
If Trey VanWinkle hitched a ride to that mini-moon Friday night, there was a fair chance he could’ve successfully shot a basketball from the space rock into one of Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School’s two gymnasium hoops.
“I was really feeling it,” the Panthers senior said. “I wasn’t missing in warm-ups, either. I came into the game knowing that I wanted this, and I shot good and we won.”
PBL boys’ basketball didn’t just win Friday’s Class 2A regional championship game against Tuscola. The second-seeded Panthers thoroughly dominated the third-seeded Warriors in a 64-33 outcome that delivered coach Adam Schonauer’s crew its second regional plaque in as many seasons.
“I did not expect the game to unfold like that,” said Schonauer, whose athletes have won this particular piece of IHSA hardware in four of the last five years. “I knew our kids would come out and play hard and compete and be ready for this game, but I did not expect us to be able to go out and score like that and win the game like that.”
The evening started typically enough, given the Panthers (27-4) and Warriors (26-4) were dueling for the third time this season. They’d split the two regular-season meetings, and the fact the rubber match was happening in regional action brought droves of supporters — including a pair of rowdy student sections — to the packed facility.
“We knew our fans would come out, and we knew with their support we could do anything,” VanWinkle said. “We shot really well (Friday). When we do that, we’re a really hard team to beat.”
VanWinkle set the tempo with a three-pointer on PBL’s first offensive possession. But that was just the beginning.
The defending News-Gazette All-Area first-team golfer converted 4 of 6 attempts from distance in the first eight minutes alone. That guided the Panthers to leads of 11-2 and 25-9 against Tuscola, and the Warriors never recovered.
“When they’re that active on the defensive end and then they shoot like they did,” Tuscola coach Justin Bozarth said, “they’re going to be tough to knock out in a sectional.”
VanWinkle ultimately sank seven three-pointers and finished with 29 points. And VanWinkle’s hot hand transferred to his PBL teammates, with seniors Colton Coy (13 points) and Dalton Busboom (nine points) frustrating the Warriors both inside and out. Eight Panthers notched at least one field goal courtesy pinpoint accuracy in ball movement.
“That kept the crowd into it, got them into it even more,” Schonauer said. “Our guys’ confidence flew as soon as we got a couple shots to fall, and it just rolls off.”
Making matters worse for Tuscola was PBL arguably playing better defensively than it did on offense. Even with Bozarth describing the host’s latter operation as “probably at its best.”
The Panthers forced 12 first-half turnovers while running up a 43-17 edge. Sophomore Jalen Quinn (14 points) was the only Warrior able to find any consistent footing, but even the Division I prospect was harassed into ball-handling errors and fouls.
Six points from junior Cole Cunningham and five points from junior Grant Hardwick accounted for most of the rest of Tuscola’s non-Quinn scoring.
“They close hard and they close quickly,” Bozarth said of the Panthers. “If you don’t catch the ball cleanly, if you fumble it in your hands, it’s too late because they’re on top of you and there’s another trap coming.”
It’ll be difficult for PBL to trap any remaining postseason foes in a sense of sneaking up on them. A second rout of the Warriors — pairing nicely with a 56-39 triumph on Jan. 31 — makes the Panthers impossible to ignore in the 2A field.
Their next chance to impress comes in Wednesday’s 7 p.m. Pontiac Sectional semifinal versus Joliet Catholic (12-19), a No. 7 seed that on Friday captured its first regional title since 2014.
If PBL puts forth another out-of-this-world effort like it did against Tuscola, its stay in Pontiac is likely to last more than one game.
“We’re going to come in with the same energy, same attitude,” VanWinkle said, “and we’re going to make a run."