BY AARON PATTERSON
As if the rivalry between the Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils and Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers wasn’t already intense enough, the two met on Friday in the midst of a hotly contested Vermilion Valley Conference race with both teams still in contention.
But while there was an overwhelming level of trash talking going on during the week leading up to the contest, a much more serious battle brought both sides together as funds were raised for Provena USMC’s Hoops for Hope. Not only did the event reach its goal of $2,500, the host Blue Devils kept their VVC record perfect with a 53-41 win.
“The rivalry between us and Schlarman is just ridiculous,” Bismarck-Henning junior guard Andy Bott said. “It always seems like something happens before the game to spur us on a little bit, and there was something that happened that really spurred us on. We really wanted to come out and be aggressive, and when we came out, we were aggressive. We got the lead, and we never let it go.”
Both sides took to social media during the week to ramp up the intensity prior to the game, but by the time the opening tip was made, there was little doubt they let their aggressions speak through their play.
The Blue Devils opened the game on a 12-3 run, and quickly increased their lead to 11 with two minutes remaining in the first half. The presence of 6-foot-7 junior center Wilde Garowski initially played a role in Bismarck-Henning gaining its advantage, but he soon got in foul trouble and saw limited action for the remainder of the game.
That didn’t seem to matter, though, as the Blue Devils (21-5 overall, 9-0 in the VVC) altered their game plan, maintained the lead, and never let the Hilltoppers (15-10, 5-4) get closer than seven points.
“We were getting the ball inside, and then our big guys got in trouble,” Bismarck-Henning interim head coach Jon Clapp said. “We took them out and extended our lead with the subs. Brad Walsh and Dustyn Ingram came in and gave us some vital minutes in the first half that we needed. We gave up some rebounds that we generally don’t with that additional size, but you bring in 6-5 off the bench and you can slide Andy Bott down low inside at 6-4. You’re losing a few inches with Wilde, but we’ve got some good height in here to stay on the boards.”
Many of Schlarman Academy’s rebounds were taken by effort rather than size as guard Austin Calhoun had a game-high 12 rebounds. Calhoun also handed out a game-high four assists and had two steals in addition to his seven points. Hilltoppers point guard Michael Simmons scored 11 of his game-high 13 points in the fourth quarter with nine coming from behind the three-point arc.
Bismarck-Henning held a 19-point lead with five minutes, two seconds to go but committed all seven of its fourth-quarter turnovers in the final five minutes.
“Our defensive pressure full court has really been an asset for us, so we’re able to put on a lot of pressure baseline to baseline,” Schlarman Academy coach Gary Tidwell said. “That’s upping the tempo because we’re having a hard time scoring from time to time. Obviously in the fourth quarter being down, that’s the strategy that we’ve had to go to lately, and it’s paid off. But we’ve got to do a better job executing in the half court and do a better job of defending, as well. You look at it and say, maybe you should do a little more of it in the game, but I think we’d be too gassed if we put it on early.”
The loss marks the fourth in the last six games for the Hilltoppers, but with the competition they have faced, they are hopeful the strength of schedule will pay off during the postseason. Schlarman Academy’s last four losses have come against Bismarck-Henning, Salt Fork, Westville, and Decatur St. Teresa.
“I just told our team that out of our 10 losses, nine of them have been against 20-win opponents,” Tidwell said. “They’re knocking at the door or will have 20-plus wins by the end of the season. We’re playing quality teams, and I think that definitely boosts your confidence for the end of the season. That’s what you play for. We’ve got to look at our weaknesses and turn those into strengths as soon as we can, and just keep competing.”
Andrew Kelley scored 11 points for Schlarman Academy and had five rebounds while Chris Kuchefski scored five, grabbed 10 boards, and had four blocks.
Austin Toler and Garowski (four rebounds, three blocks) each finished with 10 points for the Blue Devils, and Chase Connelly and Walsh each had six. Bott also finished with eight points and nine rebounds.
Schlarman Academy is scheduled to host Armstrong-Potomac on Tuesday, and Bismarck-Henning will continue its bid for a conference title hosting Hoopeston Area.
“It’s important,” Clapp said of the win. “We keep looking at just the next game. We’ve got to take care of business. If we keep doing that and focus, the conference will take care of itself. We can’t look past any team. You’ve got to be ready. We’ve got a target on us now. Every team is going to give us their best effort, and we’ve got to have our best effort to win.”