BY JOHN DUBOIS
With multiple teams still in the mix for the Vermilion Valley Conference championship, the Schlarman Academy Lady Hilltoppers staked their claim to being one of the top contenders with a 50-38 win over the defending champion Bismarck-Henning Lady Blue Devils.
It was the Hilltoppers’ third consecutive win following a difficult visit to the Peoria Manual tournament and moves Schlarman Academy to 12-9 overall, 6-2 VVC.
Freshman Sierra Bell led the way with a game-high 20 points with Janelle Marion adding 15 points. The Hilltoppers erased a third quarter deficit and continued a recent trend of strong fourth quarter performances, outscoring the Blue Devils 15-5 in the final period.
“We have played well with our backs to the wall,” said Schlarman Academy coach Keith Peoples. “Basketball is a game of momentum and for a young team we have done a good job of staying poised. When Sierra is playing at the level she played at tonight we know we are still in any game. Our defensive intensity picked up in the second half and we did a nice job of applying overall defensive pressure.”
The Hilltoppers defeated the Blue Devils five weeks ago and swept the season series from Bismarck-Henning for the first time in over a decade.
The Blue Devils were led by 14 points from Brooke Walsh with Addie Voyles adding 12 points.
“We played hard and we played well, but there defensive pressure in the second half got us to playing at their pace,” said Bismarck-Henning coach Mike Stephens. “Sierra Bell is a very good player and did a nice job of playing under control and she is a very tough kid to handle on the court.
“They have a lot of weapons with Bell, Marion inside, and their 3-point shooters, and overall probably have more weapons than we do. We did some nice things on offense at times, but I wish we could have been a little more patient. Brooke Walsh had a very nice game and Addie Voyles did a nice job offensively and playing in the front of our zone.”
An early 10-0 run would give the Hilltoppers a 10-4 lead, but following a buzzer-beating 3-pointer from Walsh, the Blue Devils had cut the deficit to 12-10. The teams would exchange baskets in the second quarter with the Hilltoppers taking a 22-20 lead into halftime.
The Blue Devils would take the lead early in the third on a basket by Voyles and opened their largest lead moments later at 33-27 following a free throw from Walsh. The Hilltoppers would end the third quarter on an 8-0 run to take a 35-33 lead heading into the fourth.
The run would reach 14-0 with 5 minutes to go which pushed the lead to 41-33 and effectively put the game away.
“I am very happy with our offensive balance,” Peoples said. “Sierra has learned to read defensive sets well and does a great job distributing the ball. To be able to do that as a freshman and still score in double figures says a lot about a young point guard.
“Janelle does just a phenomenal job on the boards for us. She does a lot of the dirty work for us and knows her role on the team which is something we have a lot of. With Janelle rebounding for us, we want our shooters to shoot when they’re open.
“We had nice efforts tonight from Holly Huckstadt and Shelby Mascari, who is also a freshman. We are expecting big things from Shelby in the future and this year she has taken over the shot blocking role that Laura Gross had for us last season. Sarah Daily didn’t see a lot of minutes tonight, but she is the engine of our team and sets the tone for us.”
The Blue Devils are now 6-14 overall, 3-5 VVC and open the Vermilion County Tournament at 10:30 a.m. Saturday against the Salt Fork Lady Storm. The Hilltoppers return to action Tuesday with a home game against the Covington Trojans.
“Each girl on the team has bought into their role and the system we are running and steps out and does their best,” Peoples said. “This is a good group who has only scratched the surface of their potential.”