BY JOHN DUBOIS
With 10 days to go in the regular season the Armstrong-Potomac Lady Trojans and the Schlarman Academy Lady Hilltoppers came into Monday’s game at Schlarman tied, along with the Georgetown-Ridge Farm Lady Buffaloes, atop the Vermilion Valley Conference standings.
Both teams have been playing some of their basketball over the past few weeks. The Trojans had won four in a row and were coming off a Vermilion County Tournament championship on Friday, while the Hilltoppers had won eight in a row and are undefeated in January.
Sparked by a solid defensive effort the Hilltoppers got off to a fast start and claimed at least a share of first place in the VVC with a 59-28 win.
Janelle Marion led the way offensively with a game-high 17 points, with senior Holly Huckstadt adding 15 points, and freshman Sierra Bell chipped in with 12 points.
It was a return to form for Huckstadt who scored all of her points on five 3-pointers.
“I was in a shooting slump, but they were just falling for me tonight,’’ she said. “It feels really good to be in a position to win a conference title. Schlarman hasn’t won one since 1998, and as a senior it would give me a chance to go out with a bang.
“Also we hadn’t beat Armstrong-Potomac in a really long time.’’
The Trojans were led by 11 points from Erika Sieberns.
An 11-0 run got the Hilltoppers out to an early 14-4 lead, and a buzzer-beating 3 from Huckstadt would give the Hilltoppers a 22-8 lead at the end of the first quarter.
“We have been spending a lot of time working on our defensive assignments, our effort, and the pressure we put on the ball,’’ Schlarman Academy coach Keith Peoples said. “It’s not so much the person scoring that you have to focus on, but the person getting the ball to the scorers. When you pressure the ball you put the opponent’s offense into a bad situation.
“I thought in the second quarter they did a good job of getting ball into Sieberns, but we were still able to front her and limit her touches.’’
Sieberns would score all of her points in the first half. The Trojans would score the first four points of the second quarter, but Hilltoppers would close out the quarter strong and took a 35-17 lead into halftime.
Marion was an all-around force in the first half and through out the game.
“Janelle played some especially great defense tonight,’’ Peoples said. “She does a great job of anticipating passes, and defense is about effort. I told Janelle that if she and Sierra would give the effort in games that they had in our last few practices that we would win a lot more games and they both showed that effort tonight.’’
The Hilltopper defense would hold the Trojans scoreless for nearly five minutes to start the second half.
Kirsten Newnum broke the drought with a pair of free throws, but the Trojans would only manage one more point in the third as the Hilltoppers took a 44-20 lead into the fourth quarter.
Huckstadt would hit her last 3 late in the fourth and the lead would reach as much as 34 points moments later on a basket by freshman Shelby Mascari.
Peoples felt Bell also contributed in multiple ways.
“When we face a 2-3 zone like we did tonight that can neutralize her scoring somewhat,’’ he said. “She is so unselfish though and as a freshman is learning how to create space and find the open player. When the defense changes and teams try to neutralize our outside shooters, she can then penetrate and create offense.
“For a young player she handles herself incredibly well and she has a very bright future.’’
The Hilltoppers, who improve to 15-9 overall and 8-2 in the league, are back in action Thursday at Hoopeston Area.
“This was a really good win for us with them winning the county tournament, and it puts in a good position to win at least a share of the VVC,’’ Peoples said. “We have things to still work on, like making lay-ups, but this win does give us some more momentum heading into the regional.
“We have three conference games to go and we aren’t taking anyone lightly. Winning the VVC is one of our goals. We showed some great signs tonight and I am very proud of our players and their effort.’’
The Trojans, who are now 15-8 overall and 7-3 in the VVC, also return to action Thursday with a road game at Georgetown-Ridge Farm in a rematch of Friday’s championship game of the Vermilion County Tournament.