CENTRALIA — The O'Fallon Panthers went into the Centralia Holiday Tournament with a losing record and their confidence a little shaken.
They came out of it with a third-place trophy, a winning record and a major boost in their confidence.
"We feel pretty good, we feel like we improved," Panthers coach Rick Gibson said after his squad beat Champaign Central 65-51 in the third-place game. "That's the name of the story. Keep improving as the year goes on, and I feel like we improved this week. Now it's keeping that momentum into next week when we get back in the conference."
The Panthers knocked off Cahokia 57-50 in the second round of the tourney and came close to doing the same to Alton (62-60 loss) in the semifinals.
Those games helped restore the Panthers' confidence, which took a hit with a 52-51 loss on their home court to Belleville East in their final game before Christmas.
"After we kind of blew up against Bellevile East the game heading into this, we were lacking that a little bit," Gibson said. "That Cahokia game has our confidence back. Cahokia is as good a team as there is around, and we beat them and we played right with Alton. You have to feel like we can compete with anybody who is left on our schedule."
The Panthers begin the New Year with two Southwestern Conference matchups -- a road game against Belleville West on Jan. 7 and a home game against Edwardsville on Jan. 14.
"In our conference, it's never going to get easier," Gibson said. "You're not going to have any nights off, and I think our guys are starting to understand that."
O'Fallon junior guard Donovan Franklin was the leading scorer in the tourney with 85 points in four games.
It was Franklin's overall play, not just his scoring, that impressed Gibson.
"Obviously, he put up some points, but I thought he really grew as a player these last few days," Gibson said. "He was rebounding, he was handling the ball, getting some assists. We know he is going to score, but we're looking for him to become that complete player, where he is defending and rebounding.
"When he starts to pull all of that together, he's a great high school player."
Ready for second-half push
The Cahokia Comanches have used winning the Centralia Tournament title as a springboard for the second half of the season the past two years.
And, even though they placed fifth this season, Cahokia coach Darian Nash said the Comanches can do the same this year.
"We have a lot to build on," Nash said. "We just have to get that killer instinct and that swag about us."'
Nash said he and his staff learned a lot from its four games in the tournament, especially its loss to O'Fallon.
"Every game you learn a lot," Nash said. "Every game me and my assistants stay on the phone until 3 or 4 in the morning talking about what we should have done, what we're not doing. It's not the big things. It's the small things that'll help us get back to Peoria."
The Comanches finished second in the Class 3A state tournament last year. They brought back three key cogs in Darius Austin, Carleton Rivers Jr. and Gary Hickman this season, and they're looking for some younger players like sophomore Tarkus Ferguson and juniors DeVonte Williams and Montez Crumble to step up into major roles.
Williams had 19 points in the Comanches' opening win over Blue Island Eisenhower and Ferguson had 11 points against O'Fallon.
Crumble had a strong tournament, scoring 24 points in four games. He had five points, two assists and two steals in a 52-35 win over Madison College Prep in the fifth-place game.
"Montez Crumble did a great job for us this whole weekend," Nash said.
Centralia's Jake Wood was chosen as the Most Valuable Player of the tournament.
Wood, a 6-foot-2 senior forward, had a game-high 17 points in the Orphans' 62-54 win over the Alton Redbirds in the championship game.
It was the Orphans' 12th championship in the tourney's 71-year history, but it was their first title since 2002.
Franklin, Alton's De'Antae McMurray, Centralia's Jerod Simmons-Young and Cahokia's Darius Austin were all chosen first team all-tournament.
The second team consisted of: Alton's Michael Williams-Bey, Madison College Prep's Arlando Cook, Chicago Marist's Nic Weishar, Centralia's Chase Alcorn and Champaign Central's Wesley Dee.
Contact reporter Steve Korte at email@example.com or 239-2522.