BY AARON PATTERSON
Suffering their first loss of the season on Friday to St. Thomas More left a bad taste in the mouths of the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers. Dropping a five-point decision to a more experienced team in the midst of adversity could have been scored a victory in the minds of the youthful Hilltoppers. But it wasn’t.
Coming so close to winning a game when the odds were stacked against them only made Schlarman Academy hungrier.
Fortunately, the Hilltoppers had less than 24 hours to let their hunger build, and when they finally took the court on Saturday, were able to feast on the Paris Tigers in a 54-42 win in the finale of the Topper Classic.
“It really motivated us to push ourselves to be better,” Hilltoppers senior guard Austin Calhoun said. “We got a bad taste of losing, and we wanted to get back to that mental state of always being competitors and winning. That’s what pushed us.
“I think it shows a lot about our players and our hard work in how we were able to bounce back from a loss that was pretty important last night,” he continued. “I think it shows a lot about our character as players to be able to bounce back and get a win the next day.”
Schlarman Academy improved to 2-1 overall with the win, showing immediate improvement from last season’s record. The Hilltoppers began the 2011-2012 campaign 3-7 and didn’t record their second win until six games into the season.
First year head coach Gary Tidwell credits the team’s senior leadership of Calhoun, Andrew Kelley, and Maher Samawi for leading the young squad and keeping it positive even when adversity might strike.
Despite earning a 12-point win, the Hilltoppers struggled to gain control early in the contest. The Tigers (1-2) got into foul trouble in the first quarter, but instead of Schlarman Academy taking advantage, it was Paris that went on a 9-0 run during a four-minute, eight second stretch in the second quarter.
The Hilltoppers trailed 26-21 at the break, but quickly regained momentum with the help of a 9-1 run of their own at the beginning of the second half. The outburst gave Schlarman Academy the lead at the 6:27 mark of the third, and ultimately stretched its advantage to eight points while Paris remained scoreless for over two minutes.
Much of the success was a result of working the ball inside to 6-foot-6 forward Chris Kuchefski.
“Chris stepped up and Austin did a nice job getting the ball to him,” Tidwell said. “That was a big pressure release because they were pressuring our guards pretty heavily on the outside. Chris relieved that pressure quite a bit. He had an outstanding game tonight.”
Kuchefski finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds, and also swatted four blocks on the defensive end of the court.
Calhoun led all scorers with 25 points, and had seven rebounds, three steals, and one block. Having Calhoun in the lineup for the entire contest definitely paid off for the Hilltoppers, but Tidwell also began to see glimpses of maturation in freshmen starters Michael Simmons and Gannon Hughes.
Simmons scored 11 points including a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer that pulled the Hilltoppers to within five, and another three in the fourth quarter just after Schlarman Academy took its final lead of the game. Hughes also scored eight points on two three-pointers and a pair of free throws that cushioned his team’s lead with only 54 seconds remaining in the game.
But Tidwell was also pleased with the way they handled a situation late in the fourth when, with an eight-point lead, the Hilltoppers were patient during a one-minute, 20-second possession that forced the Tigers to begin fouling with just under three minutes to go.
“I think our freshmen kept their composure late in the game,” Tidwell said. “We had a lead at the end at the two-and-a-half or three-minute mark. We wanted to pull it out. They weren’t in the bonus yet. I thought we were smart overall with the basketball. It was the first opportunity as a team, especially with the younger guys, to be put in that position, and they did a great job.”
Calhoun finished the tournament with a total of 67 points and was named to the all-tournament team, as was Landon Larrance of Paris, Judah Christian’s Ethan Chitty, and St. Thomas More guard Kyler Jones. St. Thomas More’s Kevin Carroll was named the tournament MVP. St. Thomas More secured its third Topper Classic title since 2009 while the Hilltoppers finished second.
Schlarman Academy will have a break before jumping into Vermilion Valley Conference play on December 7 against defending conference champs, Bismarck-Henning.