BY CHAD DARE firstname.lastname@example.org
---- — ARMSTRONG — When you have four seniors playing their final home game and its for an outright conference title — they are expected to rise to the occasion.
Armstrong-Potomac senior guard Morgan Zindars along with teammates Rachel Miles, Courtney Hambleton and Johanna Bruens didn't disappoint the home fans at Bezely Gymnasium on Thursday night.
The Trojans, behind 30 points from its four seniors, claimed their first-ever Vermilion Valley Conference girls basketball title with a 36-30 victory over the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils.
"This means a lot for the entire program,'' Armstrong-Potomac coach Nick Hipsher said. "Yes, this was one of our goals at the beginning of the season, but we just didn't decide back in November that we wanted to win the conference title. These girls have been working towards this goal for the past four years.''
Not only is it the first Vermilion Valley Conference title for the Trojans, who improved to 20-5 overall and 12-1 in the league, but it's the school's first girls basketball title since winning a Sangamon Valley Conference title in 2001-02 season.
"It's really amazing,'' said Bruens, who scored a team-high 11 points to go along with seven rebounds and three steals. "It's been a rough road with (Bismarck-Henning) beating us in the County championship. We wanted to get back at them and we did.''
Armstrong-Potomac's victory not only avenged its 41-36 loss to Bismarck-Henning in the Vermilion County Tournament championship, but it also offset the Blue Devils 40-33 win over the Trojans on Jan. 9 in the first of two conference meetings between the rivals.
"It was definitely in the back of our heads,'' Hipsher said. "But, being able to win conference outright means a lot more than that.''
The Trojans secured their title in the final eight minutes as they outscored the Blue Devils 15-7 in the fourth quarter, and it was their senior leader getting things started.
Zindars gave Armstrong-Potomac the lead for good when she buried a 3-pointer from the right baseline just 18 seconds into the fourth quarter.
'I thought Morgan was big for us,'' Hipsher said. "We drew up that play in the huddle before the start of the fourth quarter. It got us off on a good foot in the fourth quarter.
"She has been a leader for the past two years, so her stepping up tonight is not a big surprise.''
But, it wasn't just her long-range shot that was big for Armstrong-Potomac. On the very next possession, she found Hambleton wide open under the basket for a layup and then the senior guard made 3-of-4 free throws in the final four minutes.
"It definitely helps when somebody hits big shot,'' said a very modest Zindars. "A lot of our shots weren't falling in this game because our adrenaline was up. Coach told us at halftime to just relax and play our game.''
So did she feel it was her responsibility to come up with the big play in the fourth quarter.
"It wasn't just me, all four of the seniors have a lot to do to lead our team,'' she said. "It means a lot when you have the kind of experience that we have. Once that first shot goes down, it just kept going and going.''
The Trojans went on to make 4-of-7 shots, including a pair of 3-pointers in that final quarter and they were 5-of-7 at the free-throw line.
"I didn't think our execution at either end was very good,'' Bismarck-Henning coach Mike Stephens said. "Especially our defensive pressure was just not as intense as it has to be in a close ballgame. We seemed to be a step slow tonight and I thought Armstrong played well.''
Stephens credited both Zindars and Miles for having big games. Zindars finished with nine points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals, while Miles had five points, three assists, three steals and a game-high six rebounds.
Miles also had the defensive assignment of guard Bismarck-Henning's Brooke Walsh, who had a game-high 14 points on 6-of-14 shooting.
"Rachel has done everything for us all season,'' Hipsher said. "She is our best defender, and while Walsh ended up with 14, I thought Rachel did a really good job on her.''
Even with Armstrong-Potomac's 8-2 run to start the fourth quarter, Bismarck-Henning pulled with one possession on three different occasions in the final quarter.
"We had some looks to get ourselves back into the lead,'' said Stephens.
The Blue Devils, who fall to 20-9 overall and 10-3 in the VVC, was just 2-of-10 from the field in the fourth quarter.
Both Armstrong-Potomac and Bismarck-Henning will now shift their focus toward claiming a IHSA regional championship. The Trojans are the No. 2 seed in the Class 1A Chrisman Regional, while the Blue Devils are the No. 3 seed in the Class 2A Bismarck-Henning Regional.
"This was a nice way to end the regular season,'' Zindars said. "Now, we have to look forward to the regional. There are a lot of good teams at Chrisman, so we are going to have to fight hard.''