The Pinckneyville Panthers are enjoying an excellent season on the basketball court and hope to make a deep postseason run.
The squad was ranked third in the state when the final Class 2A Associated Press basketball poll came out this week. The team recently completed its second straight sweep of the SIRR Mississippi Division and its third consecutive conference title.
Seniors guards Grant Jausel and J.C. Moll are leading the charge for this group.
“It’s another good year, and we were young last year and did that,” Jausel said. “We figured we could come back and do it again. There haven’t been that many that can three-peat.”
The Panthers employ an almost chaotic style of pressure defense, and their opponents are averaging just 43 points a game.
“We work on it every day in practice, and we really push each other to try to get better at it,” Moll said. “We want to hold them so we can play our game. We want to speed them up because we like to play fast. If we play fast then they have to play fast, and we can get the ball.”
Moll averages just under 13 points per game and shoots nearly 90 percent from the foul line and almost 50 percent from downtown. But it still goes back to defense.
“It just starts with how we practice and the effort from our kids,” said Pinckneyville coach Bob Waggoner. “It allows you to play more kids and be deeper on your bench because you expect that type of effort. It creates a lot of team chemistry because our guys learn that they can count on each other on the defensive end. That leads to the same thing on the offensive end. It’s really a competition thing each day. They really push each other to get better so the team can excel.”
Pinckneyville has won 27 out of 30 games this season, and both players were asked if it was Peoria or bust. Moll wouldn’t commit to that, but Jausel was more vocal about the team’s goals. The program has won three state championships.
“I’d like to go out on top and win the whole thing,” Jausel said. “Since we were freshmen, you look in the corners of Thomas Gym and you see those three special groups. We were always talking about how we could be that fourth special group to win it all. That was our goal all the way through our high school career.”
Jausel leads the team in scoring at just under 14 points per game. Sophomore Dawson Yates averages 11 per night. Waggoner thought he’d have a pretty good group this year after a successful run last year.
“This team has been through the wars and the battles, and they’ve lost twice in the sectional,” Waggoner said. “They want to go further, and I think that’s what has driven them to have a great off season and really be prepared. That type of attitude is maybe what has separated this group from others. They are really focused and driven to play their best basketball at this time of year.”
Free throws are another big part of this year’s Pinckneyville squad, which shoots 72 percent from the line. But it cost them a game to Meridian at the Benton Invitational Tournament. In that contest, the Panthers missed 12 out of 19 attempts in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“Free throws are really important,” Jausel said. “Coach Waggoner has been stressing to us the importance of free throws and how the game will always find the weak free-throw shooter. And it always comes back to them. We practice them a lot and always hold people back after practice when they need to work on it.”
Pinckneyville hosts Gibault Catholic in the regional championship at 7 p.m. tonight. The Panthers hope to move on to the Trenton Wesclin Sectional.
“Right now, they really have a kind of energy and a buzz in practice,” Waggoner said. “Every day they are just ready to go. I think there is a lot of excitement because they’re expecting good things to happen. When you have a group with this type of energy at this time of year in practice, you know that they can be special.”