BY JOHN DUBOIS
The Bismarck-Henning Blue Devils began the defense of their Vermilion Valley Conference championship Friday night on the road against the resurgent Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers.
Both teams have gotten off to solid starts with the Blue Devils winning five of their first seven games and the Hilltoppers three of their first four.
Sparked by Andy Bott and Chase Connelly, the Blue Devils were able to overcome a fast start by the Hilltoppers and pulled out a 51-47 win.
Bott had 18 points, with 14 coming in the second half, while Connelly added eight of his 12 points in the second half.
Austin Calhoun led the way for Schlarman Academy with 18 points, with Chris Kuchefski adding 14 points.
Sparked by an energetic crowd on hand for Wall of Fame night, the Hilltoppers ended the first quarter with a 15-3 lead.
“They were very excited early on in the game and we were just out their playing,” said Bismarck-Henning coach Deon Mennenga. “We let them take it to us early and take us out of some of the stuff we wanted to run because we were doing a lot of standing around in the first quarter.”
Kuchefski was a key for the fast start for the Hilltoppers.
“The crowd and atmosphere were great, and Chris played really well in the first half,” said Schlarman Academy coach Gary Tidwell. “I think we were able to throw them a few curves with what we were running and our motion offense was effective against their man to man. When they went to zone, they were more effective against us defensively.”
The Blue Devils would get their offense going in the second quarter and ended the period on a 7-0 run to cut the Schlarman lead at halftime to 23-18. A buzzer beating 3-pointer by Bott would cut the lead to 34-32 heading into the fourth.
“We caught a break there and we needed one at that point,” Mennenga said. “Andy is a good shooter who needs to catch and shoot. That got us back in the game and we never panicked after the first. The game is too long to get to upset after one quarter. We knew we needed to increase our intensity and we were able to do that as the game went on.”
The game was tied at 42-42 with just over three minutes to go and the Blue Devils took the lead for the first time on a basket by Dustyn Ingram moments later. The Hilltoppers could get no closer than two points for the remainder of the game.
“Chase played better in the second half as our whole team did,” Mennenga said. “We need to continue to find ways of getting Chase the ball. We had some sickness issues tonight and were fortunate to have some of our guys available.
“We were able to keep them from making any more runs after the first quarter and the way you do that is by playing sound fundamental basketball. It’s still early in the season and we are ironing some things out and finding our way, especially on offense.”
Tidwell said the first thing he checked after the game was free throw percentage.
“In any close game I do that,” he said. “We have to shoot a better percentage (7 for 19) from the foul line. That’s usually your first missed opportunity and we had a missed opportunity tonight. We had some bad stretches defensively and got into some foul trouble, which hurt us especially tonight since our bench was a little short.
“Bismarck did a great job and closed out this game. If we are any type of competitors at all this is the kind of loss that will hurt. How we respond to, bounce back, and learn from games like this will determine how we do this season.”
Both teams return to action on Tuesday. The Blue Devils 6-2 overall, 1-0 Vermilion Valley Conference are at Hoopeston Area, while the Hilltoppers 3-2, 1-1 are at Armstrong-Potomac.