BY AARON PATTERSON
Each and every game, first year Salt Fork boys basketball coach Andrew Johnson challenges his players to get better. He wants them to expect more out of themselves and improve on their previous performance.
The primary motivation stems from the Storm’s lone loss of the season, a 40-point setback to St. Joseph-Ogden. And since the defeat, Salt Fork has risen to the occasion of its coach’s request. The result has been a 10-game winning streak with the most recent coming on Saturday in a 60-55 BSN Basketball Classic championship win over Clifton Central.
“We took a pretty tough loss and I think that motivated us for the rest of our games,” Storm senior Alec Dutton said. “Since then, we’ve had a different focus and a different intensity going into every game. We’ve definitely felt prepared for every game.”
Preparation was key against the Clifton Central Comets who were coming off an impressive win over Bismarck-Henning. With a distinct height advantage over the Comets, the Storm (14-1) made an extra effort to feed off the play of post players Dutton and Max Stutsman who finished with 14 and 15 points respectively.
“We work in and out with those two,” Johnson said. “That high-low that we were working on was to get the shots that we wanted. Not every one of them was going in but we were getting the looks that we wanted as far as our post entries. Alec’s got good footwork down there and he’s got the ability to finish around the rim. Our focal point was either of those guys, getting them posted up and stretching that floor. They did a good job of executing.”
But it wasn’t only the scoring from the post that proved crucial. Johnson’s game plan emphasized limiting Clifton Central’s second-chance opportunities. While the Storm out-rebounded the Comets, Salt Fork accounted for 28 of its 36 rebounds on the defensive glass.
“What happened a lot was, they would shoot those three balls,” said Dutton, who earned nine of his 10 rebounds on the defensive end. “They were making a few, but also they were getting some good bounces that they were getting in for tip-ins. We made sure that we locked down the defensive boards for us and tried to limit their second-chance opportunities. That’s what really sealed it for us.”
Stutsman had a game-high 12 rebounds with eight defensive rebounds, and Cole Taylor, who scored a team-high 16 points, secured six boards.
Only four of the Comets’ 21 baskets came following offensive rebounds. Clifton Central, however, took advantage of every possible opportunity in the fourth quarter to go on a 13-4 run, and reduce a 10-point deficit to one with under three minutes to play.
But the same intensity that helped the Storm take a commanding lead early allowed them to maintain the advantage.
“You just have to have that killer instinct,” said junior guard Ross Learnard who scored 15 points and was named tournament MVP. “We’re just out there to win. We didn’t want to give it up. We just made some good shots when we needed to, played defense when we had to, and we just pulled out the win.”
As a team, the Storm dished out 10 assists including three from Dutton and two each from Stutsman and Learnard.
Salt Fork will return to Vermilion Valley Conference play taking on Westville and Oakwood before beginning the Vermilion County Tournament on January 12.