BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — CHRISMAN — Schlarman Academy coach Keith Peoples is taking the attitude it's better late than never when it comes to his Hilltoppers girls basketball team.
For the second game in a row, and for the first time in the IHSA Class 1A regional tournament, Schlarman allowed its defense to set the tone, holding an opponent scoreless in the first quarter.
The Hilltoppers used a 19-0 run in the first nine minutes of Monday's Class 1A Chrisman Regional quarterfinals to carry them to a 59-47 victory over the Salt Fork Storm on Roger Beals Court.
"I enjoyed watching us play the first quarter,'' said Peoples, whose team led 15-0 after than opening eight minutes. "That's two games in a row (Schlarman outscored Westville 21-0 in the first quarter of Saturday's regular-season finale) that we've changed our defenses up and our girls bought into the concept of defense first. I think they are starting to understand that defense dictates the outcomes more often than not.
"I proud of them, because that is one of my goals as a coach. I just wish we could have figured it out at the start of the season. But, this is the start of a new season, so I guess there is no better time for them to figure it out.''
Schlarman forced Salt Fork into 12 first-quarter turnovers and they turned those miscues into 10 of its 15 first-quarter points. Senior Janelle Marion scored all eight of her first-quarter points after a turnover by the Storm.
The Hilltoppers (18-8) scored the first four points of the second quarter to build their lead to 19-0 before Kaitlyn Carleton buried a 15-foot jumper for the Storm with 6 minutes, 33 seconds left in the first half.
"We got down 19-0 before we scored, if you look at it, we won the rest of the game,'' said Salt Fork coach Jeff Carleton, whose team did outscore Schlarman 47-40 in the final 23 minutes. "But, you can't do that. The kids came out a little tight and things didn't go our way.''
Carleton added the Storm, who finish their season at 17-12 — a five-game improvement from last year — attempted to prepare for the Hilltoppers pressure defense.
"We don't run that, so it's hard to simulate that in practice,'' he said. "We got better at it later in the game, as we got some layups and good looks after the first quarter. We just didn't make enough of them or get to the free-throw line enough off of those opportunities inside.''
While Salt Fork made just 37.5 percent of its shots (18-of-48), Schlarman counter by making 45.7 (21-of-46).
"Give Schlarman credit, they hit some big shots,'' Carleton said. "The last time we played them, the (Sierra) Bell girl couldn't hit anything from the outside. Today, she stepped up and did what good players are supposed to do.''
Bell, a 5-foot-7 sophomore guard, was not only a key contributor on the defensive end for the Hilltoppers with a game-high nine steals, but she also scored a season-high 31 points.
"That was the first one I've had all season,'' said Bell of scoring more than 30 points. Her career-high is 32 points from her freshman season. "But, all of that came from our work on the defensive end and from my teammates. We were doing a good job of getting steals and getting out for fast-break opportunities.''
In addition to her scoring and defense, Bell also finished with a game-high four assists.
"A strong teaching point this year for Sierra has been to play under control and pick your moments,'' Peoples said. "She is starting to grow as a player.
"Sierra needs to understand that she is surrounded by good players, if she gets them the ball in the right place at the right times.''
Another aspect of her game on Monday night was that Bell scored 15 of her 31 after turning her ankle late in the third quarter and she was 11-of-17 at the free-throw line in the final nine minutes of the contest.
"I thought she showed a lot of maturity after the injury to come back and knock down those free throws,'' Peoples said.
After trailing by almost 20 points in the first half, Salt Fork got within 10 points (39-29) at the end of the third quarter as Emilie McFadden, who finished with 10 points, scored six in the final two minutes of the period.
But that was as close as the Storm would get, as Bell and Marion combined for 53 of the Hilltoppers 59 points.
"We talked about that all week long,'' Carleton said. "We needed to contain those two. We were able to do it, but I'm still proud of the way my girls fought until the end.''
Kalyn Learnard had a team-high 11 points for the Storm, followed by McFadden with 10 to go along with seven rebounds.
Schlarman didn't have anyone besides Bell or Marion score more than two points, but Shelby Mascari had a game-high nine rebounds and Sarah Daily finished with three assists, three steals and five rebounds.
The Hilltoppers, a regional champion last year, will play the top-seeded Shiloh Raiders in a 6 p.m. regional semifinal tonight in Chrisman. The other semifinal will feature Cissna Park, a 42-24 winner over Chrisman on Monday, against the second-seeded Armstrong-Potomac Trojans.