BY AARON PATTERSON
A change has taken over the Schlarman Academy boys basketball program this season, and it goes much deeper than the addition of new head coach Gary Tidwell.
Entering the season with a fresh perspective has done more than change the way the Hilltoppers have approached practice and game situations. The renewed focus has also produced success on the court.
The Hilltoppers defeated the Tri-County Titans on Tuesday, 55-47, marking the second time in the last five seasons they recorded a postseason win. But as further proof of a turnaround, Schlarman Academy doubled its win total from last season, earning 20 victories for the first time since the 2002-2003 season.
“Coach Tidwell has got us working very hard,” Schlarman Academy senior forward Andrew Kelley said. “We’re a defense-oriented team. We’re not going to get outworked, we’re not going to get out-hustled. That’s been our mindset the entire year. I think the big turnaround from last year is just the mindset and the defensive pressure.”
The Hilltoppers (20-10) felt the need to turn up their defensive pressure in the third quarter of Tuesday’s game when, after leading the entire contest and by as many as 13, the Titans pulled to within 32-30 one minute, 14 seconds into the third quarter. That’s when Schlarman Academy went on a 10-1 run to go up 42-31. Kelley scored six of the Hilltoppers’ points during the stretch before turning the offense over to senior guard Austin Calhoun.
Kelley and Calhoun each scored 20 points in the game and had 12 and 11 rebounds respectively. Calhoun also swiped three steals, and Kelley finished with four assists.
“Andrew, the last six or seven games, has done an outstanding job around the basket for us,” Tidwell said. “He’s using his length to his advantage. He does a nice job with his back to the basket and with the mid-range shot. Tonight, he shot his free throws extremely well. He was six-for-six.
“He’s become more of a complete player. He’s one of our better rebounders, and with his length on the defensive end, we are able to match him up with their better shooters. He’s been a major asset for us. It’s great to see his confidence up recently. We’re definitely going to need him the rest of the way.”
The Titans were making a final effort to extend their season, and had just pulled to within 51-47 with 27 seconds remaining on a basket by Wes Motley (14 points, 11 rebounds). But Calhoun refused to let Tri-County threaten the Hilltoppers’ season. He scored on a layup with 22 seconds to go, immediately stole the inbounds pass under the basket, and gave Schlarman Academy a 55-47 lead to seal the win.
“Austin always turns out great for us in the fourth quarter and plays good defense the entire game,” Kelley said. “We had a few lapses where we felt like we could have put it away, and we just kept letting them come right back. We just had to keep fighting through that.”
Freshman point guard Michael Simmons added two points, four assists and three steals in the win, Chris Kuchefski scored seven and had 10 rebounds and four blocks, and freshman Gannon Hughes hit back-to-back threes in the first quarter to help the Hilltoppers build their lead.
Next up for Schlarman Academy will be a rematch with Shiloh in tonight’s 7:30 p.m. semifinal. The Raiders defeated the Hilltoppers 53-42 on December 29 in the fifth place game of the BSN Classic. Having won eight of their last 12 games, and five consecutive, they feel as though they are playing with the confidence to take back that win, and advance to their first regional title game in 10 years.
“They’re a good team,” Kelley said. “They beat us in the BSN Classic. We’re looking back. We want to get a little bit of revenge and get that win. We’ve got to take it one game at a time. I think if we keep doing that and keep that defensive mindset, we can get that regional championship and go back home for sectionals.”