BY AARON PATTERSON
It might not be out of the question to suggest that the Schlarman Hilltoppers boys basketball team could experience some growing pains this season. With a brand new head coach and a total of five freshmen on a roster of 10, it would be easy to set expectations low.
But even after suffering their first loss of the season — a 45-40 setback to the St. Thomas More Sabers on Friday — first year head coach Gary Tidwell and his team leaders are optimistic for a successful season.
The Hilltoppers committed a total of 26 turnovers including four within a one minute, 33 second stretch in the third quarter. To make matters worse, senior leading scorer Austin Calhoun got into foul trouble early, picking up three in the first half, before ultimately fouling out with 3:26 to go in the game. Senior Andrew Kelley also made an early exit in the fourth because of injury.
Schlarman Academy still remained close and never trailed by more than six in the game against a St. Thomas More team that leaned heavily on a rotation of five juniors and one senior.
“All the negatives that we can point out and look at, it’s a five-point difference against a team that’s won this tournament two out of the last three years,” Tidwell said. “It’s a quality program with experienced players back from last year’s team.
“It’s easy to look at the faults, but I’m proud of my players for competing and for playing hard. I saw a lot of positive things from our group tonight.”
Calhoun scored a game-high 15 points and had six rebounds, three steals, and two blocks in limited action. The senior guard scored the first points of the game on a three-pointer, and it appeared as though he would pick up where he left off on Tuesday when he scored an impressive 27 points in a win over Judah Christian. But his minutes were quickly reduced when he picked up his second foul with 2:11 to go in the first period. He was eventually whistled for his third with 2:45 remaining in the first half, and didn’t see the floor in the third quarter until nearly three minutes had passed.
“Those are our two leading scorers,” Tidwell said of Calhoun and Kelley. “Our seniors not being in the game at the end really hurt us, but I’m proud of my team. They competed, they stayed aggressive. We had a lot of inexperience on the court, and you could tell that a little bit, but we played hard. It was a hard-fought game. We just had a couple of unfortunate things happen to us, but our guys didn’t hang their head. They kept competing, kept fighting, kept clawing, and I’m proud of them for that. I think we’ll learn from this experience.”
Schlarman Academy held a 17-15 advantage at halftime, and didn’t surrender the lead until midway through the third period.
Calhoun was impressed with the way the Hilltoppers battled late in the game despite having young and relatively inexperienced players on the court. Though they were so close to picking up their second win, the tough loss served as a learning experience.
“I learned that I can rely on them a lot more,” Calhoun said. “With two people dropping out and having two first-year players on the floor and only losing by five to a really fundamentally solid team, it was really good to see.
“We played really well when we had our two seniors drop out of the game. It’s bad when your two leaders come out of the game, but everyone stepped up to face adversity.”
St. Thomas More’s Storm Joop scored five of his 13 points in the final three minutes of the game to help the Sabers hold the lead. Kyler Jones led the Sabers with 14 points, and Kevin Carroll had 12.
Maher Samawi (seven points, eight rebounds) and Kelley (six points, four steals) combined to score 13 for the Hilltoppers who will take on Paris (1-1) in tonight’s final game of the Topper Classic. St. Thomas More (2-0) will attempt to secure its third tournament’s title since 2009 when it takes on Judah Christian (0-2) at 6 p.m.