BY CHAD DARE
Salt Fork coach Jeff Carleton thought all year that his Storm girls basketball team had the opportunity to win a regional championship.
Through the first two months of the season, that probably looked like a pipe dream when Salt Fork won just three of its first 17 games.
But when it has counted the most, the Storm have won six straight including Monday’s 42-32 win over the Milford Bearcats in and IHSA Class 1A quarterfinal contest at Bezley Gymnasium in Armstrong.
“I told these girls all year long that they didn’t believe in themselves at the beginning,’’ Carleton said. “We were losing games. We had leads in the fourth quarters of those games, but we were throwing them away at the end.
“All of the sudden, we’ve recently started winning a few games, they started believing and we are playing our best basketball right now.’’
With the win over Milford on Monday, Salt Fork (10-16) advances to Tuesday’s semifinal contest against the top-seeded Armstrong-Potomac Trojans.
“I told them all along we had a great shot to win this regional and I still believe that,’’ he said. “Now, they are believing it, so watch out.’’
Salt Fork’s recent turnaround has coincided with the return of senior Heather Ellis to the lineup.
Ellis, who missed more than a month of the season with mono, scored a game-high 11 points and led the Storm with seven rebounds.
“She didn’t come back until Jan. 1,’’ Carleton said. “She is just one month into her season and she has come on huge in the last three games.
“She is finally getting her legs back underneath her. That has helped us a bunch.’’
For Ellis, there was no way that she was going to let her senior season end without her being 100 percent.
“I was completely drained because of the mono,’’ she said. “All I wanted to do is sleep. I missed some practices because I was too tired and I even fell asleep in a practice.
“Once I got back to practicing, I got into the gym more. I started shooting more and getting myself ready for the postseason.’’
It showed as Ellis had a season-high 23 in a win over Westville last Thursday and she scored seven points during Salt Fork’s pivotal third quarter on Monday.
The Storm turned its 16-13 halftime lead into a 15-point advantage (35-20) heading into the fourth quarter.
Milford, which ends its season at 12-16, committed seven turnovers in that third quarter leading directly to 10 points for Salt Fork.
“We just didn’t take very good care of the basketball. They came out hungrier than we were in the second half,’’ said Milford coach Rod Burgett, noting his Bearcats had a full lineup for first time in a while on Monday night. “We tried to get healthy at the right time and they got hot at the right time.
“When you get hot this time of the year, it’s a good thing.’’
Ellis said the key to them getting hot is that the team has been playing with the “right mental mindset” in the last six games.
“We started playing as a team,’’ she said. “Everyone came together as a family.
“This is the time of the year that you needed to get going and we did.’’
Carleton admitted getting all players on the same page was a difficult task.
“We had a little bit of not wanting to run the offense in the beginning of the season, and we had some people wanting to do their own things,’’ he said. “They had a couple of team meetings and they made the changes necessary.’’
Another senior making a big impact for Salt Fork on Monday night was Toria Plotner, who had six points, five rebounds and four steals.
Two of her thefts came in third quarter helping the Storm go on a 13-0 run.
“She is going to get her points off of good defense,’’ Carleton said. “If I need someone stopped, she is the one I looking at on our team.’’
While Salt Fork’s defense set up the 13-0 run, the offense was also 8-of-11 from the field in the third quarter.
“We went to our man-to-man defense and they just picked us apart,’’ Burgett said. “We were hoping to cause them some trouble with it, but it turned out to be the opposite.’’
Kylie Thrust was the leading scorer for the Bearcats with 10 points and she also pulled down a game-high nine rebounds.