BY AARON PATTERSON
The original game plan of the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers entering Tuesday’s Vermilion Valley Conference contest against the Chrisman Cardinals was to exploit the significant size advantage the Hilltoppers held.
It rarely happened. In reality, they didn’t have to, and at times, the guard play of senior Austin Calhoun and freshman Michael Simmons made the Schlarman Academy big men a second option.
Hilltoppers post players Maher Samawi and Chris Kuchefski each scored six points in their 51-28 win over the Cardinals, and Kuchefski pulled down five rebounds and had three blocks. Forward Andrew Kelley also finished with six rebounds.
But it was the duo of Simmons and Calhoun that ultimately gave the Cardinals fits and left their effort seeming lackluster and poignant in the eyes of Chrisman coach Greg Gisinger.
“I thought we came out with no heart,” Gisinger said. “I thought we played soft, and messed around. They wanted to play more than we did. I think we wanted to stay at home tonight.”
Any lack of effort on the part of the Cardinals was magnified as the defense of the Hilltoppers produced a 21-4 first-quarter lead behind the nearly perfect shooting of Calhoun who scored 11 of his game-high 22 points in the frame. Schlarman Academy (13-6 overall, 4-1 in the VVC) had six steals in the first quarter, and limited Chrisman’s offensive opportunities.
“I told those guys in the locker room that they had an outstanding performance tonight, both of them,” Schlarman Academy coach Gary Tidwell said of Calhoun and Simmons. “Austin was tough to stop around the bucket and did a great job defensively as well. He just used his athleticism around the rim.
“Michael made some outstanding decisions in the open court, took it coast-to-coast a couple times. He’s just really been improving leaps and bounds throughout the course of the season. The thing that makes him even more of a challenge to guard is he’s able to knock down the three-point shot. He’s been doing a good job of that, and he did that at the beginning of the game, which stretched their defense. Those two, it was definitely a one-two punch tonight out of those guards.”
Simmons scored 15, grabbed seven rebounds, and accounted for five of Schlarman Academy’s 10 steals. The freshman point guard scored the Hilltoppers’ first eight points of the third quarter on perfect accuracy beginning with a three-pointer that gave his team a 34-14 lead.
“Michael is a very fast, good point guard,” Calhoun said. “He’s got really good handles. We work really well together. Being a freshman, he’s got a really good career ahead of him.
“If he needs to drive, he’s good at kicking it out. If I’m driving, he knows where to be. He’s always my opposite. He just knows the court really well.”
Simmons not only saw the court well Tuesday, but saw the rim well, too. He scored his first points of the game roughly one minute into the contest. Just after Kuchefski scored the game’s opening points on a rebound basket, Simmons gave Schlarman Academy a 5-0 lead on a three, which was followed shortly after by a three by Calhoun. Calhoun went on to score the Hilltoppers’ final eight points of the period, including a layup as the buzzer sounded when he stole the Cardinals’ inbounds pass under the basket.
“It was good getting a conference win,” Calhoun said. “Every conference game is a big game for us. We’re just really looking forward to being at the top of our conference. Coming off a loss was pretty devastating, but we bounced back really well tonight.”
The win was much-needed coming off a 16-point loss to Cissna Park, and the schedule doesn’t get any easier as the Hilltoppers travel to Bloomington on Saturday for the Central Catholic Shootout where they face Decatur St. Teresa (11-1).