KEOSAUQUA – For 16 minutes, the Van Buren County girls basketball team had one of Class 3A's top 10 teams on the ropes.
"So far, so good," was how Warriors head coach Matt Zeitler described it.
"Of course, it could all fall apart in second half."
Ninth-ranked (3A) West Burlington stormed back in the final 16 minutes, holding the Warriors to just two free throws in the third quarter to take the lead before building on it with tenacious defense on both ends of the court. The Falcons improved to 9-0 with a 53-42 win over Van Buren County, who could not build on what truly was the team's best half this season.
"We went a quarter without making a basket. Normally, if you go an entire quarter without making a basket, you get beat by 30," Van Buren County head girls basketball coach Matt Zeitler said. "The kids battled enough to stay with them, but we don't have enough firepower when we fall behind."
"We're young. They had a nice shooting half, but for kids that haven't played that much to put two halves like that together is almost a bonus. That's like winning at the casino."
The first possession of the game set the tone for a great first half from the Warriors, who entered the holiday break with a surprising 5-2 record despite replacing four starters from last year's 21-win regional finalist. That winning start was spurred on by the only returning starter, Isabel Manning, who entered the holiday break leading the entire state in scoring averaging 33.3 points a game.
After giving up a basket inside to Abby Bence, it wasn't Manning that answered on the offensive end for Van Buren County. Instead, it was Kadence Nusbaum that sank a long jumper off a feed from Ella Jirak, setting the table for a much more balanced offensive attack from the Warriors.
"We were ready for this. I think we surprised ourselves," VBC junior Zoe Best said. "Isabel does her thing and she does really well, but we spread it out much more. I think it was much more of a team effort. We made more passes. The more we play together and the more we get a feel for what we can do, I think we can improve a lot more this season."
Best nearly recorded a double-double, scoring nine points while hauling in 10 rebounds. The Warriors were the more confident team on both ends of the court, forcing the Falcons into 11 misses on 15 shots from the field in the first quarter while opening a 14-8 lead.
"I'm not sure whether West Burlington made a shot inside 10 feet in the entire game," Zeitler said. "I was proud of our girls for their effort for the entire game. The kids fought the entire way. We could have been buried without the fight we showed."
Ella Jirak drained a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter as the Warriors continued to make quality passes that set up open looks inside and outside the arc. Manning and Best found each other during the first half for lay-ups while each put back missed shots with the last putback by Best sending Van Buren County to the locker room with a 28-16 lead.
"The next step for these girls is to figure out how to do that for two halves," Zeitler said. "The girls also have to learn how to continue to step up when Isabel isn't on or the other team is doing something to distract her."
Manning would finish with just 16 points, the lowest total for the state's leading scorer in her senior season. Despite finishing with a double-double by collecting 11 rebounds, the physical play of the Falcons seemed to take its toll on Manning forcing the Warrior senior into an 8-24 shooting effort from the field.
"I've never seen Isabel Manning get hit so many times on the arm and not get a foul whistled," Zeitler said. "They pushed her. They shoved her, but West Burlington might be the defensive team we'll see this year."
That defensive effort was led by Annaka Harris, who made it tough for Manning both to get the basketball and handle the basketball. Harris collected a game-high seven steals, helping the Falcons rally back with 14 points including a jumper off an inbounds pass with two minutes left in the third that put West Burlington on top 31-30.
"Annaka Harris might be the best defensive player in Southeast Iowa," Zeitler said. "She moves her feet well. She's good with her hands. She's long and she doesn't let you move around her. That's hard for Isabel."
After outscoring Van Buren County (5-3, 5-2 SEI south) 17-2 in the third quarter, West Burlington (9-0, 7-0 SEI south) never looked back. Back-to-back baskets by Ivy Davidson and Manning pulled Van Buren County as close as three early in the fourth before Harris scored inside on the first of three steals that led directly to points for the Falcons, including a pick by Harris on an inbounds in the backcourt that led to a lay-up, putting West Burlington up 47-36.
"I think it got to us when they came out with more intensity in the second half," Best said. "We were focused on trying to stay ahead. We're a new team. We don't have as much experience. We need to learn how to focus on relaxing and trying to play our game."
Abbey Bence led West Burlington with a double-double, scoring a game-high 17 points while pulling in 11 rebounds. Sydney Marlow added 13 points for the Falcons.
Van Buren County returns to the court on Friday night at Danville.