DANVILLE — Schlarman Academy girls basketball coach Keith Peoples made it clear at the beginning of the season that his Class 1A fourth-ranked Hilltoppers might win, but it will be ugly. Losing shooters from last year’s squad like Sydne Bryant and Holly Huckstadt has changed the focus of this year’s team from offense to defense.
The Hilltoppers’ success through Peoples’ method was evident in Monday’s 51-42 Vermilion Valley Conference win over the Salt Fork Storm.
“At the beginning of the season I made an announcement that our games are going to be ugly,” Peoples said. “We’re not the most skilled team. We’re going to have to rely on defense to win games, and that’s exactly what we did today. It was not our offense. It was strictly defense.”
Most glaring was a putrid 13-of-41 performance at the free-throw line. Entering Monday’s game, Schlarman Academy was holding steady at 55.5 percent.
But the Hilltoppers made up for their offensive woes by limiting Salt Fork’s offensive opportunities and controlling the boards.
Schlarman Academy out-rebounded Salt Fork 50-42 with the Hilltoppers’ Janelle Marion grabbing a game-high 18 rebounds. Fourteen of the senior forward’s boards came on the offensive glass.
Still, she wasn’t happy with her game as the Hilltoppers rushed many of their shots in the paint.
“Tonight I don’t think that it was to my potential,” said Marion, who also scored 12 points and had three steals. “I just need to slow down and trust my teammates that they are going to be there to rebound if necessary. I just need to slow down and focus more, because tonight I didn’t really show it, honestly.”
The Hilltoppers still found ways to maintain their lead. Schlarman Academy (10-7 overall, 4-1 in the Vermilion Valley Conference) never trailed until Salt Fork (10-8, 4-2) took a brief lead at the five-minute, 59-second mark of the third quarter on a basket by Sydnie Klemme (six points, eight rebounds). Klemme assured the Storm a lead going into the fourth quarter on a put-back basket and a free throw with 25 seconds to go. But the lead was short-lived. Fourteen seconds into the fourth quarter, Schlarman Academy’s Maria Rangel scored two of her four points to give the Hilltoppers their final lead of the game.
“We finally started getting some shots to fall,” Salt Fork coach Jeff Carleton said. “We didn’t shoot very well in the first half. We have struggled with our shooting, and we finally got some shots to fall. We got a little momentum going, and then it seemed like every time we would get something going, we would throw the ball away. We would have a costly turnover that would turn into two or maybe three. They would get the lead back, so we were always fighting from behind all night long.”
Peoples helped his squad remain calm during the stretch in which it gave up the lead and momentum. His tactics worked, and the Hilltoppers were able to regain their edge.
“At that point, I sat down on the bench,” Peoples said. “I didn’t yell and scream as much. I tried to make sure that our girls knew and understood that basketball is a game of momentum. We stress that a lot during practice. What can we do to regain that momentum?
“We switched our defense up in the fourth quarter, and things started to click. Even though we shot a poor free throw percentage — even our field goal percentage, I hate to see what that is. It was our defense that kept us in the game, and it was our defense that helped us win the game.”
Salt Fork committed 20 turnovers in the game with eight coming in the final 7:30. Schlarman Academy was credited with 10 steals in the game, backing Peoples’ willingness to make the game ugly on defense. The Hilltoppers converted on nine of those 20 opportunities scoring 17 points off of turnovers.
“We had a lot of steals, a lot of offensive rebounds and defensive rebounds,” Marion said. “I think our defense was really on key tonight.
“That pretty much describes us right now,” Marion added in response to her coach’s claim of winning ugly. “Losing Sydne and Holly, our main three-point shooters this year, we don’t have very many shooters this year. So, we’ll have to score through the paint. It’s going to be an ugly win, but we’re going to pull through.”
Shelby Mascari scored seven points, had three steals, and pulled down 14 rebounds for the Hilltoppers. Sierra Bell led all scorers with 24 points and had eight rebounds and four steals.
Kalyn Learnard came off the bench to score nine points for the Storm while also grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out four assists. Kaitlyn Carleton scored eight and had four rebounds, and Emilie McFadden finished with six points and eight rebounds.
Salt Fork is scheduled to host Oakwood on Thursday while Schlarman Academy will be at home again taking on Bismarck-Henning.