BY CHAD DARE email@example.com
---- — CATLIN — Salt Fork seniors Ross Learnard and Cole Taylor didn’t hesitate when asked for the key in the Storm’s 51-45 victory over the Milford Bearcats in IHSA Class 1A regional championship.
While Learnard and Taylor combined for 29 points, according to them, it was getting the ball inside to 6-foot-5 senior center Max Stutsman.
“Giving it to Max is always our best option,’’ said Taylor, who finished with 12 points, two assists and three steals.
So after a first half in which Stutsman had just six points on five shot attempts, the Storm turned to their main attraction in the second half.
Stutsman scored 15 second-half points, including eight straight in the third quarter, to lead Salt Fork to its second straight regional title and the fourth in the past six seasons.
“He’s done that multiple times this year,’’ said Learnard, who had 17 points six rebounds, four assists and four steals. “He is our guy and we’re going to go to him.
“We’re just a side show. He is the leader.’’
Actually, Stutsman was not very happy with his play in the first two quarters even thought Salt Fork had a 22-19 halftime lead.
“To be honest with you, I was playing like a wimp in the first half,’’ he said. “I knew I had to get something going for my team and get some momentum going.’’
What exactly did he do wrong?
“I made some really bad decisions, like putting the ball on the ground and letting the guards take it from me,’’ said Stutsman, who finished with 21 points and 16 rebounds, both of them were game-highs. “I just decided to get more physical in the second half and I played my heart out.’’
After being held to just five shot attempts in the first half, Stutsman was 6-of-8 from the field in the second half and he was 3-of-5 at the free-throw line in the final 16 minutes.
“When a team plays an aggressive zone defense, like Milford did, it should open things up for the inside game,’’ Salt Fork coach Andrew Johnson said. “We kept emphasizing at timeouts and during any stoppage of play, to find Max inside. I think I said ‘find Max’ at least 20 times in that quarter.
“Not only did he do a good job of capitalizing on his opportunities in the second half, but he also did a good job of hitting the boards. He created opportunities for himself.’’
And not to be overlooked, Stutsman also had five blocked shots — four of them in the second half for the Storm.
But Milford coach John Spezia said he expected that kind of game from Stutsman, the difference for him was Learnard and Taylor hitting 10-of-21 shots, including five 3-pointers.
“Those guys are three seniors and they should come out and do what they did tonight,’’ he said. “But, it was Learnard and Taylor hitting those shots from the outside that really opened things up for them.
“We didn’t do a good job of finding those guys.’’
So with that in mind, Spezia pulled out a triangle-and-2 defense in the third quarter.
“Since we could find them in the zone, we had to man them up,’’ he said. “We finally took those guys out of it and then Stutsman picks it up.’’
Salt Fork, which improves to 24-8 on the season, led by as much as nine points (41-32) midway through the fourth quarter. Milford, the top-seeded team in the regional, battled back, pulling within three points (46-43) on a basket by Jacob Rogers with 1 minute, 31 seconds left in the contest.
The Storm made just enough free throws — three of five — in the final minute to secure the regional title on their home court.
“When you host a regional. You have to take advantage of it, so it was nice to have the crowd and be in your comfort zone,’’ Johnson said. “These seniors didn’t want to be done yet. We didn’t win the conference, we didn’t win the County and we came up short in the Christmas tournament.
“But, I will take this over those any day of the week.’’
Milford was attempting to win its first regional title in 17 years and this was the Bearcats first postseason victories since reaching the regional final in 2008.
“These kids have overcame a lot of obstacles this year,’’ said Spezia, who missed more than six weeks after being severely injured in a automobile accident on New Year’s eve. “I feel bad for the kids, because there are some things that I think we could have done differently. But, give Salt Fork the credit.’’
Earlier this year, the Bearcats cruised the Storm in a Saturday morning contest in Sheldon. According to Spezia the biggest difference was Learnard, who was held scoreless in the regular-season game.
“I wasn’t in foul trouble this time around,’’ Learnard said. “But as a team, we were also more aggressive against their zone. We were always in attack mode this time around, always looking for a good shot.’’
Stutsman said that attitude was developed in Thursday’s practice.
“Coach had a specific game plan,’’ Stutsman said. “We put in a couple of new plays just to attack their zone. I thought Noah Darr, playing the point guard position for us tonight, really stepped up well. That was a big part to our success.’’
Rogers and Alex Portwood shared team-high scoring honors for Milford with 15 points each, while Jeff Cann finished with 13.
Salt Fork, with the win, advances to Danville Area Community College Sectional where it will play St. Anne in an 7:30 p.m. game on Tuesday. The first semifinal will feature Arthur-Lovington against Champaign St. Thomas More.
In the Country Financial 3-point Showdown, Stutsman, who reached the state finals a year ago, won the regional title with 10 made 3-pointers. Also advancing from the Catlin Regional were Schlarman’s Gavin Stines and Armstrong-Potomac’s Shawn Johnson.