BY AARON PATTERSON
After such a hot start to their season, the Schlarman Academy Hilltoppers were cooled off by a losing skid that served as not only a wake-up call, but offered a challenging stretch that they believe will prove crucial for the second half of the season.
Coming off a tough holiday tournament at Peoria Manual in which Schlarman Academy won only one of four games, the Hilltoppers returned to Vermilion Valley Conference play on Thursday, and responded with a 60-57 win over Georgetown-Ridge Farm. It was only the third loss of the season for the much-improved Buffaloes.
“We had to bring the energy that we played with in Peoria, and bring it onto the floor here and keep pushing,” Schlarman Academy freshman Sierra Bell said. “We had to feed off of the energy (from Peoria) because they played at a higher level there. We just had to bring that back here.”
While the Buffaloes (10-3) did not participate in a holiday tournament, they entered the contest like a team feeding off of competitive energy. Georgetown-Ridge Farm led the entire first half and by two at the break despite the Hilltoppers ending the second quarter on an 11-6 run. Schlarman Academy took its first lead of the game at 28-27, 20 seconds into the second half on a three-point basket by Holly Huckstadt. Huckstadt, who finished the game with 18 points, all from behind the arc, caused problems for the Buffaloes defense which ultimately had to choose between defending the three-point line, or Bell, who became a consistent threat slashing to the basket.
Bell scored a game-high 25 points with 15 coming in the fourth quarter. She scored the Hilltoppers’ final 13 points of the game during the last four minutes. Even more impressive, nine of the points came after tweaking her ankle with three minutes remaining.
“She was unstoppable in the fourth quarter especially,” Georgetown-Ridge Farm coach Michelle Brooks said. “She stepped up. It wasn’t even one-on-one. We packed it in and she was still getting to the basket somehow. She made a big, big difference in the fourth quarter.”
Schlarman Academy started the fourth quarter on an 8-2 run, but Georgetown-Ridge remained close and even gained a 52-51 edge with just under two minutes to play. But the Hilltoppers refused to back down and held on for the three-point win.
Georgetown-Ridge Farm’s Brittany Hay scored 15 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had five assists and six steals. Maya Green finished with 18 points, while Callan Hall and Catie Brandt each had nine.
Schlarman Academy’s Janelle Marion had only two points, but had a team-high 11 rebounds and five steals, while Sydney Bryant scored eight and had three steals. As a team, the Hilltoppers made 12 of 14 free throw attempts. Bell made nine of her 10 tries.
“I think the tournament in Peoria prepared us for this game,” Schlarman Academy coach Keith Peoples said. “We played some very good competition in Peoria. We finally won the very last game of our tournament there, and it prepared us for this game.
“It was a very physical tournament in Peoria. The competition was pretty stiff. We are a young team, but we competed to our potential, and I think it prepared us for this game.”
The Hilltoppers will attempt to extend their new winning streak to three games on Saturday against Fountain Central.