NORMAL – Danville Schlarman’s athleticism and ability came to the forefront early in the Class 1A state championship game.
The Hilltoppers built an early lead through steals and transition points, and held off a pair of Eastland runs to capture its second straight state championship 62-36 on Saturday at Redbird Arena.
Notre Dame-bound Anaya Peoples scored 19 points, Xavier-bound Capria Brown added 17, and the Hilltoppers shot 52 percent from the field.
“It just goes to show you that every single practice, you need to work hard,” Eastland junior guard Lydia Coatney said. “You think you’re at the top, but then you come down here and you’re not at the top.”
Schlarman was able to push the tempo and get out and run, outscoring Eastland 16-2 on fast-break points.
“They’re so fast,” Eastland sophomore forward Karlie Krogman said. “We just had to make sure that someone was leaking back at all times if we didn’t secure the rebound, because they were going to have one or two people down there for a wide-open layup.”
Down 20-5 after one quarter, the Cougars were able to play the Hilltoppers evenly in the second, outscoring them in that quarter 13-11.
Though Eastland (31-5) opened the quarter with two more turnovers, leading to two more Schlarman baskets and a 24-5 lead, things soon started to turn around.
Coatney was able to save a ball from going out of bounds, and in doing so flipped it to semifinal hero Dani Rush under the basket, who was able to score.
Erin Henze then hit a 3-pointer with 4:26 left in the half, her first points of the game, to cut the deficit to 24-10.
Meredith Janssen then closed the half with a three-point play on a putback, and added another basket off a nice assist by Gabby Snyder.
“We realized they’re human,” Eastland coach Nicole Brinker said. “They’re high school girls basketball players, and we can play with them. We just got a little bit more aggressive on the offensive end. They were willing to put the ball down and attack instead of let them attack us.”
That didn’t last. Schlarman (33-2) opened the third quarter with a 9-0 run aided by three Eastland turnovers.
“We had a heart-to-heart talk in the locker room about our defensive principles,” Schlarman coach Keith Peoples said. “I felt like we didn’t focus on rebounding, we just focused on offense. We had a heart-to-heart talk about playing Schlarman girls basketball defense.”
Eastland chipped away at the lead later in the third and early in the fourth thanks in large part to Krogman hitting three baskets in the paint, drawing fouls on two of them and converting the three-point plays.
Krogman finished with a team-high 10 points.
“She just got a little bit upset,” Brinker said. “She got banged a couple times and came up short, and we said, ‘You know what, if you’re going to get banged and they’re not going to call it, you deliver the first punch,’ and she did. She started to lower that shoulder a bit to protect the ball and power it up.”
Krogman played 22 minutes, much of it in the second half with a slight ankle injury after rolling it on a play in the paint.
“It’s the state championship game. I’m not going to sit out,” she said. “You may never get this opportunity again. I was just going to embrace it and play on it.”
Krogman’s eight points in 3 minutes cut the deficit to 48-34, but Schlarman responded with a 12-0 run, including three baskets from Sydney Gouard.
“They’re so good,” Krogman said. “They just broke our defense down. They’re such a talented, good team.”
In halfcourt sets, Janiah Newell was able to break down the Cougars’ defense over and over, beating defenders off the dribble to drive to the rim. She finished the game with 16 points.
The day after Erin Henze scored 25 points in a win over Tri-County, the stifling Hilltoppers defense limited her to five points on 2-for-11 shooting.
“That’s our name of the game: defense, defense, defense, pressure, pressure, pressure,” Anaya Peoples said. “Janiah and Capria are the best defenders in the state. Anywhere. When they get going, it just gets everybody else going.”
Much of that defense turned into offense for the Hilltoppers. Eastland turned the ball over 23 times in the game, 13 on Schlarman steals, and the Hilltoppers scored 33 points off of turnovers.
Many of those turnovers came in the first quarter, where Schlarman picked up steals on Eastland’s first two possessions of the game and forced six turnovers in just over 5 minutes to race out to an 18-2 lead.
“They’re a great team, and we were expecting that coming in,” Coatney said. “We just needed to calm down and stop turning over the ball.”
Schlarman had a sluggish first quarter at times in its semifinal win over Lewistown before going on a run. There was absolutely no sluggishness for the Hilltoppers in the first quarter on Saturday.
“The lights are bright. We haven’t played here since last year,” Anaya Peoples said. “But after we adjusted, we just calmed down. We were like, ‘This is our last time out here. This is it. So why are we going to be nervous to make a mistake?’ We have nothing to lose, just go out and have fun and enjoy these last few minutes with each other.”
Eastland loses seniors Snyder, Sage Walrath and Hannah Witt to graduation, but brings back a talented core with Henze, Coatney, Krogman and Janssen.
“You learn from it,” Coatney said. “Just try to do what we can to come back here next year. I’d love to be back.”