Elmira gave up two points before the clock started, was called for 31 fouls and missed two breakaway dunks.
Despite those issues and a late Vestal surge, the Express still dominated most of the way in a 75-65 season-opening boys basketball victory on Tuesday night at Southside High School.
Senior forward Eli Thomas had 19 points and 11 rebounds to help defending Southern Tier Athletic Conference West Division champion Elmira give first-year coach Ryan Johnson a winning debut.
“Overall for three quarters and six minutes we were pretty darn good,” Johnson said. “I’m proud of them. We want to push the tempo and we want to get easy run-outs and the guys were prepared. We had a good night overall.”
Junior guard Tyler Moffe added 16 points for Elmira and senior swingman Alex Bellardini had 13 points before fouling out.
The Express forced 20 Vestal turnovers in the first half and led 39-25 at halftime. Elmira increased its lead to 63-39 after three quarters behind an eight-point quarter from Thomas, who grabbed four of his rebounds on the offensive end.
Thomas was already in peak basketball form after playing a key role in Elmira’s run to the state semifinals in football.
“The kid just gives outstanding effort all the time,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more. He’s all over the place and he brings our team to another level.”
Twelve players broke into the scoring column for Vestal (0-2), led by 12 points from senior Kevin Franz. That included two free throws before play started after Elmira was called for a technical foul when one of its players dunked the ball in warm-ups.
Vestal ended up taking 43 foul shots and converting 28 of them. Elmira was called for 31 fouls.
The Bears made only six field goals in the first half and struggled against Elmira’s swarming half-court defense as well as against the Express’ full-court pressure.
“Their athleticism took us out of our offense,” Vestal coach Rob Carr said. “We played their tempo and weren’t able to keep up with their pace.
“We made poor decisions and their pressure was tough. They’re athletic and they run and jump at you, and we just didn’t handle it well.”
Vestal scored 14 points in the final 75 seconds after trailing 70-51 with just under two minutes remaining. The Bears got as close as six points before Elmira put the game out of reach at the foul line.
Carr said he was proud of his team’s effort down the stretch while Johnson did not like having to bring his starting unit back into the game after they had seemingly finished for the night.
“Sloppy at the end and we’re not going to tolerate that,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s got to be prepared, everybody’s got to be focused. So I think we sent a message. We went right back to our guys. We’re not going to be embarrassed. Everybody’s going to give max effort all the time.”