BY CHAD DARE
Winning four straight games and a tournament title is a pretty good way to start a new coaching job.
But Salt Fork’s Andrew Johnson knows that a Tri-County Turkey Tournament title is just the start of a difficult season.
The Storm claimed the championship on Friday as Salt Fork defeated Bloomington Cornerstone Christian Academy 36-32 in its first contest and then beat Georgetown-Ridge Farm 47-37 in the tournament finale.
“When you start out 4-0, it’s hard to complain too much,’’ Johnson said. “But, honestly, we didn’t play well today. Both games were dog fights and in both games, the other teams did a good job of making adjustments to us.
“But our goal was to start 4-0 and we met that goal. I’m happy from that standpoint.’’
Georgetown-Ridge Farm, which went 0-4 at Tri-County, gave Salt Fork all it could handle for 25 minutes.
The Buffaloes and the Storm were tied at 30-30 following Dylan Bina’s offensive rebound and basket with 7 minutes, 13 seconds left.
That was as close as Georgetown-Ridge Farm would get as Salt Fork scored 17 of the game’s final 24 points. Tournament MVP Ross Learnard had nine of his game-high 18 in the fourth quarter, including six in the final three minutes.
“It seemed like in the fourth quarter — especially the last three minutes — he took the game over,’’ Georgetown-Ridge Farm coach Adam Latoz said. “He is outstanding. He has worked on his ballhandling and he can go right or left.
“It just seemed like tonight, when he wanted to score. He got to the hole and scored.’’
Learnard struggled in Salt Fork’s win over Cornerstone Christian with just 3 points and he had only 2 at halftime in the game with Georgetown-Ridge Farm.
“We want to make sure that he stays aggressive, and not settle for outside shot,’’ said Johnson of his junior guard. “Sometimes, you have to get yourself to the free-throw line. I told him to attack that basket, and see if we can get a chance to get to the free-throw line and get rhythm going.
“That helped him late in that second half.’’
Learnard scored 16 second-half points and he was 5-of-7 at the free-throw line in the second half.
“We had to get things going and I just went for it,’’ Learnard said. “As a junior this year, I’m looked at to be a leader, so the team needs more production out of me.’’
Learnard’s play finally broke a very stingy defense by Georgetown-Ridge Farm.
The Buffaloes had 10 steals against the Storm, who made just 6-of-20 shots in the first half.
“This team has played defensive pretty well,’’ Latoz said. “I thought that might be a problem coming into the season.
“We just need to find something offensively.’’
In four games at Tri-County, Georgetown-Ridge Farm average just 38.5 points per game.
“We still have trouble scoring the basketball,’’ Latoz said. “It’s the little things — rebounding and turnovers. We’re getting better and we are finding our identity.
“I think we played better and better today. Our second game (a 46-27 loss to Cornerstone) was our worst game of the tournament, by far.’’
Not only is Latoz looking for improvement, but that’s one of the things that Johnson hopes he sees this next week.
“We need to execute better in order to move forward, both offensively and defensively,’’ he said. “Sometimes, you have to be able to play poorly and still find a way to win. I thought we did that tonight.
“We have St. Joe on Tuesday. We need to make sure we are focused and ready to go.’’
Learnard said getting four wins was a good start but the Storm will get a big test against the Spartans.
“We have to step it up both defensively and with our offensive execution,’’ he said. “We have bought into Coach Johnson’s system and it’s going to be a fun year.’’
Joining Learnard in double figures for Salt Fork was Alec Dutton with 13, while Max Stutsman had a double-double with 12 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
Both Dutton and Stutsman joined Learnard on the all-tournament team.
Garrett Martin and Kyle Coburn, another all-tournament member, led the Buffaloes with nine points each.