BY AARON PATTERSON
It might be hard to fool a coaching veteran like Westville head coach Jeff Millis. He’s been around awhile. And he’s coached in a lot of Vermilion County Tournaments. Perhaps more importantly, he’s coached teams in games immediately following the County Tournament.
Though the Tigers won this year’s tournament for the first time since 1995, he didn’t want his team to be tricked into thinking the rest of the season would be a breeze. So, he stressed the importance of using the victory as positive momentum, and continuing to build on the success.
They took the words to heart, and in a pivotal Vermilion Valley Conference home game on Tuesday against Schlarman Academy, the Tigers won their 10th consecutive game, defeating the Hilltoppers 40-24.
“I told the kids after the game, ‘You’re not going to believe this, guys, but I’m more proud of how you played tonight than how you played Saturday night,’” Millis said. “Not that I’m not happy with their effort on Saturday, but I’ve been in this business a long time and I’ve seen a lot of teams not play very well after the County Tournament, period, let alone when you win it. So, I was really proud of the effort that we played with.”
The win keeps the Tigers’ conference record a perfect 6-0 with a key contest coming up on Friday against Bismarck-Henning, which is also undefeated in the VVC.
Not only did Westville (17-4) avoid a letdown after securing its County title, it refused to look past the Hilltoppers (14-8 overall, 4-2 in the VVC) who have been battling for their own spot at the top of the conference standings.
The Tigers proved as much by forcing the Hilltoppers to call a time out just three minutes, 21 seconds into the game after committing three quick turnovers, and finding themselves down 8-0. By halftime, Westville had built an 18-9 lead, and that was even after a poor offensive showing in the second quarter in which it scored only four points.
But even with their brief offensive woes, the Tigers never trailed in the game in large part to applying defensive pressure that the Hilltoppers could not break.
Schlarman Academy was forced into a total of 24 turnovers — 10 on steals, two five-second calls, three traveling violations, four offensive fouls, and five occasions in which they simply threw the ball away.
“It’s big,” Westville guard Tanner Cox said. “Guarding the guy that brings the ball up the court, you obviously have to put a lot of pressure on the ball. It sets the tone for the rest of the game, especially for the rest of your teammates.
“We heard that they are a good ball team, and they are a good ball team. But we came out and pressured them, and forced them into some turnovers. We did our job on defense.”
Cox finished with a game-high 16 points, but also had two assists and three steals. Layn White also scored nine for the Tigers and had four steals.
The Hilltoppers went on a 9-0 run in the third quarter to pull to within 20-18. The stretch included a four-point play when Chris Kuchefski was fouled on a basket and missed the free throw only to see Maher Samawi get the offensive rebound and putback.
The play sparked life into the Hilltoppers and their fans, but the comeback was short-lived. The Tigers immediately responded with a 14-2 run over the ensuing 4:44.
It was the lowest point total of the season for Schlarman Academy, and its largest margin of defeat since losing to Cissna Park 42-26 on January 5.
“The game was just too physical for us tonight,” Schlarman Academy coach Gary Tidwell said. “We really struggled with the physicality of it all. I think their physical play really took us out of what we wanted to do offensively.
“We missed a lot of easy baskets, and defensively I thought both teams were pretty solid. I think they were just more physical than we were, as evidenced by the low-scoring output that we had. But, I’m proud of my guys. They competed, they didn’t back down, didn’t give up. We just couldn’t make shots. That’s what the name of the game is all about.”
The Hilltoppers are scheduled to host Georgetown-Ridge Farm on Friday, while the Tigers go on the road to battle Bismarck-Henning in an attempt to keep their conference record perfect.
“Coming out of the County Tournament is big, but we just couldn’t have a letdown,” Cox said of the win. “We had to come out with a big win, and we did that.
“It definitely keeps the momentum going after the championship at County,” he continued. “It puts us one step closer to the conference championship.”
The Tigers and Blue Devils met on January 17 in the County Tournament with Westville pulling out a 43-39 overtime win to advance to the title game.