Mules roll to easy win
Fairfield ends Pana's Cinderella run, 70-33; Defense forces 23 turnovers
VANDALIA - Fairfield head coach Scott McElravy was probably a bit nervous heading into his Mules' sectional semifinal matchup with Pana on Tuesday night.

The Panthers had shot the ball really well in beating both Casey-Westfield and Marshall to win the Shelbyville Regional last week.

Those nerves could not have lasted too long once the game started.

Fairfield wasted little time dismantling the upset minded Panthers, using two huge scoring runs triggered by defensive stops in a 70-33 romp to improve their record to 32-2.

The Mules caused Pana trouble from the outset, turning a 5-2 deficit into a 20-5 lead at the end of one quarter and then slamming the door shut with a 20-0 crusade to end the second quarter and begin the third.

By the time Pana got “the number of the semi that hit them” the contest was over.

Fairfield had stretched the advantage to 45-11 midway through the third period.

The Panthers, who had won six consecutive games to get back to the .500 mark, saw their season come to a halt at 17-18.

Head coach Adam Metzger could do little to stop the “Mule train,” as he burned four first half timeouts to no avail.

Fairfield put four players in double-digits, led by sharpshooting 6-foot-3 sophomore Landon Zurliene who nailed four 3-pointers and finished with 16-points.

Five-foot-eleven senior guard Jayzale O'Neal netted 14-points and teammates Brian Estes and Kane Hixenbaugh added 10-points each.

O'Neal dished out seven assists to his teammates in the win.

Ten Mules scored in the victory; the first sectional win for the program since the 2001 season.

“Most of the teams our size, that are more perimeter-style teams, we have done well against,” said Coach McElravy. “Our kids were super locked in on defense. They (Pana) have five or six kids that had five made 3's each in separate games so we knew they could shoot. Our “2-2-1” three-quarter court trap really bothered them. Our defense led to a lot of offense tonight.”

Pana didn't have a player hit for double-digits in the game, as senior guard Jack Armstrong closed his prep career with seven-points to lead the Panthers.

Sophomore Andrew Ambrose and senior Brevin Blackwell scored six and five-points for Pana.

The Panthers actually took a 5-2 early lead with a 3-pointer from the right corner by Blackwell and two free throws by junior Jonah Lauff.

That was the end of the highlight reel for Pana on the night.

Fairfield's offense, using a defense that forced eight first quarter turnovers, exploded on an 18-0 devastating run.

The Mules turned four Pana turnovers into fast break points in a matter of minutes.

Estes slammed home a two-hander and O'Neal scored seven-straight points, converting a pair of drives in transition and nailing a 3-pointer.

O'Neal created one of the turnovers himself and then got an a return pass for an assist from junior guard Wyatt Gilbert

Buckets by Zurliene and reserve Luke Dagg increased the pressure.

Estes closed the quarter with a score off yet another assist, this time by senior reserve Cody Cantrell as the frame closed with Fairfield up 20-5.

Pana got three scores in the second quarter from Lauff, Ambrose and Armstrong.

The Armstrong bucket, on a drive and reverse lay in, whittled the Fairfield lead down to 25-11 with 3:41 left before halftime.

At this point Fairfield proved to everyone in attendance that they were just getting warmed up.

Ten consecutive points, with a pair of 3-pointers from O'Neal and senior guard Reese Lee, got the run going.

A Hixenbaugh basket on another assist from O'Neal and then an O'Neal drive in the paint closed the second quarter at 35-11.

Pana ended it's nightmarish half with 13-turnovers and just 4-of-20 shooting from the field.

“All credit to them (Fairfield) they put a lot of pressure on us, in the passing lanes the defended. The few times we got to the rim they were still getting tips on the balls even with shot fakes still blocking shots,” said Coach Metzger. “It was just a good team effort from Fairfield. They are just a great team.”

Ten more points to open the second half by the Mules “kicked” dirt on top of the Panthers' chances.

Estes scored a couple of times in the beginning of the half while Hixenbaugh and Lee each converted fast break chances.

After Hixenbaugh scored off a rebound and outlet pass from Estes, Fairfield led 45-11.

“We have had games like that this year (big runs) where we are capable of making runs. We stress defense into offense. They love to get out and go on the break. We did a good job on that tonight,” said Coach McElravy, who won his first sectional game as a coach at Fairfield.

When Armstrong finally got a shot to fall in with 4:11 left in the third quarter, in broke a seven and a half minute scoring drought.

Zurliene added two more long range bombs, including an “excuse” me shot that came about because he didn't have anyone to throw it two after he picked up his dribble at the top of the arc.

His next long range bucket closed the quarter at 56-18.

“He (Zurliene) is a good 6-3 and he has long arms so it is tough to block his shot,” said Coach McElravy. “He can go out (range) from 23-24 feet and make shots. He can really stretch defenses.”

Pana, at this point, had 19 turnovers, more than they had points on the scoreboard.

The Mules took their largest lead with a bucket by Zurliene that pushed the margin 40-points before the benches were emptied.

Reserves played out the remainder of the contest, which, had it been played during regular season rules would have triggered a continuous clock.

Fairfield ended up a “misleading” 29-of-58 from the field (50 percent), with nine of its missed shots coming from the guys “swinging the mops” at the end.

The Mules took care of the ball, committing just seven turnovers.

Pana ended up 13-of-44 overall (29.5 percent), hitting just 2-of-16 from the arc (12.5 percent), a place that served the team well during the winning streak that earned them a regional title; the first since 2012.

“The (made shots) dried up tonight for us but credit to our guys for continuing to battle,” said Coach Metzger. “Nobody can take away from what they did the last two weeks. Winning six-games in-a-row and upsetting some teams that no one thought we had a shot against. Good luck to Fairfield the rest of the way.”

The Mules will meet the winner of the Wednesday semifinal between Teutopolis vs. Mt. Carmel game.

The sectional title game will be at 7 pm on Friday night.

A victory would get the Mules to their first supersectional since 1992 when they made it to Champaign in the old two-class system.

Fairfield has beaten both the Aces and Wooden Shoes this season.

“I'm just super proud of the kids. We are in a spot we haven't been in a long, long time,” said Coach McElravy. “We are just excited to be playing here on Friday night.”

Sectional Semifinal
Pana (33) – Schmitz 1 0 0-0 2, Holthaus 2 0 0-0 4, Kile 0 0 0-0 0, Armstrong 3 0 1-4 7, Spracklin 0 1 0-0 3, Beyers 0 0 2-2 2, Edmiston 0 0 0-0 0, Funneman 0 0 0-0 0, Blackwell 1 1 0-0 5, Kuhn 0 0 0-0 0, Lauff 1 0 2-2 4, Ambrose 3 0 0-0 6.
2FG-11, 3FG-2, FT-5-8, PF-8.

Fairfield (58) – Lee 2 1 0-0 7, Gilbert 0 0 1-4 1, O'Neal 4 2 0-2 14, Hixenbaugh 2 2 0-0 10, Estes 5 0 0-2 10, Cantrell 1 0 1-1 3, Zurliene 2 4 0-0 16, Dagg 3 0 0-0 6, Massie 1 0 0-0 2, McElravy 0 0 0-0 0, Pruitt 0 0 0-0 0, Trent 0 0 0-0 0, Lane 0 0 1-2 1, Frymire 0 0 0-0 0, Petty 0 0 0-0 0.
2FG-20, 3FG-9, FT-3-11, PF-8.

Fouled Out – None.
Technical Fouls – None.