BY JOHN DUBOIS
A new era mixed with tradition Tuesday night at Schlarman Academy as the Hilltoppers played their first game under coach Gary Tidwell and hosted the 46th annual Topper Classic.
Sparked by a fast start and led by 27 points from Austin Calhoun, the Hilltoppers took the lead early and then never trailed in a 67-50 win over the Champaign Judah Christian Tribe.
Andrew Kelley added 13 points, Chris Kuchefski had 10, and the starting freshman duo of Michael Simmons (five points) and Gannon Hughes (eight points) combined for 13 points.
“Our guys played really hard tonight,” Tidwell said. “They played with a lot of confidence and were consistent for the whole game. They did a great job overall.”
Calhoun and Kelley are two of the three seniors on the Hilltoppers roster.
“These guys are veterans who have been through things before,” Tidwell said. “They each have a great all-around games. Austin is a pretty scrappy player, he is very quick and he finishes well. He plays a lot taller than he is and does a nice job on the glass. He elevates well and everything for us starts on the defensive end with Austin.”
The Hilltoppers took the lead at 5-4 on a 3 by Kelley and never trailed from that point. Calhoun scored nine straight points in the first quarter as the Hilltoppers ended the period with a 16-5 lead.
Judah Christian would switch to a zone in the second quarter which slowed down the Schlarman Academy offense, but the Hilltoppers still took a 30-18 lead into halftime.
“When they switched to that 2-3 zone, it do slow us down a bit,” Tidwell said. “We struggled against it initially, but then we were able to get some easy looks inside. We were really cohesive in our offense tonight. We were a little nervous very early in the game and took some ill-advised shots, but we kept our composure and did a great job with ball movement.”
The teams would exchange baskets at the start of the third quarter with the Hilltoppers ending the period with a 48-37 lead.
“Chris Kuchefski was big on the glass (seven rebounds) in the second half,” Tidwell said. “He has been sick and has missed practice, but he was very aggressive tonight and had a nice shooting touch.
“Gannon Hughes and Michael Simmons don’t play like freshmen — They have been very consistent, very perceptive, and eager to learn since we started practice. Gannon had a big second half, and Michael did a great job of handling the ball at the bottom of their zone.”
The Hilltoppers had their best quarter in the fourth with 19 points.
“We made some turnovers tonight, but we will learn as we grow and develop more rhythm on offense,” Tidwell said. “My main goal for our team is what every coach wants and that is that we expect to compete hard and to win games. I’m going to lean on my assistants and our seniors as I learn new opponents. The expectations of our players are high and we will continue to get better.”
St. Thomas More won the first game of the night 63-56 over Paris, The Topper Classic resumes play on Friday with Judah Christian facing Paris at 6 p.m. and Schlarman Academy facing St. Thomas More at 7:30 p.m.