Jan. 20—CATLIN — As Friday night progressed, Salt Fork's gymnasium slowly filled with home black, white and silver and Bismarck-Henning/Rossville-Alvin blue.
By tipoff of the Vermilion County Tournament girls' championship game just past 8 p.m., you could feel the energy from the parking lot in a game that was a long time coming, even if the location wasn't given much time to plan.
And when Sailor Pacot scored a putback layup for the game's first basket, Salt Fork's student section made it even louder. They erupted after each Storm score, and it bled into the players on the court. Just three minutes into the game, Salt Fork coach Brian Russell was gesturing to his girls to "Settle down."
The Storm soon found that perfect balance and rode it to a 38-11 win and a third consecutive county title.
"Pretty special," Russell said. "It's all about the girls. They're the ones who put in the time, effort and sweat and do all the little things I ask them to do. I'm extremely happy for them because this is all about them."
Salt Fork (20-5) simply outhustled BHRA (12-11), beating the Blue Devils up and down the court, getting a hand on seemingly every pass and diving on each loose ball on their home court.
The decision to move the final three games of the girls' tournament was made Friday morning because of water-pressure issues in Danville, with Danville Area Community College the site of the first four days of the tournament before three boys' games were moved to Wilcox Gymnasium at BHRA on Thursday night. A decision is expected by 10 a.m. Saturday on where the final three boys' tournament games will be played on Saturday evening.
The last-minute shuffle to Catlin didn't diminish the enthusiasm, though. Even if the Storm rode its home crowd to a lopsided win.
"All we knew was we were going to come ready to play," Salt Fork junior Alexa Jamison said. "Having everyone here was awesome. On both sides, people from Bismarck and Salt Fork, it was an awesome environment."
BHRA's only basket of the second quarter came just before the halftime buzzer, and Salt Fork took a 19-6 lead into the locker room. It wasn't a high-scoring game by any means, but it didn't need to be with how intense the Storm's defense was in collecting its 11th straight win.
"They brought it (Friday night)," Russell said. "We talk a lot about defense, and we work at it a lot in practice. These girls stepped up and did an amazing job. It was a complete team effort, from the girls who were on the floor to the girls on the bench who were into it the entire time."
Midway through the third quarter, Jamison got the hot hand, drilling back-to-back three-pointers from the left wing and euro-stepping around a defender in the lane for another bucket. The Storm rode her superb play to a 34-8 advantage going into the fourth quarter, again holding BHRA scoreless until the final seconds.
Jamison led Salt Fork with 22 points, while Macie Russell, Brycie Hird and Sailor Pacot each had four points.
Ella Myers and Beth McMahon each finished with three points for the Blue Devils.
Jamison's All-Tournament performance over the last week was extra meaningful to her given that she's only been back playing since Dec. 3. She tore her ACL last June and had surgery in late July. Russell said Jamison "completes our team," and she's shown why, leading the Storm to a 17-2 record since her return.
"As soon as it happened, this was my motivation, to get to this moment," Jamison said of the postgame celebration. "Any time I was struggling, this was my motivation, to get back with my teammates. It was awesome that we could do it three years in a row."
Cornjerkers take third
Nobody was lighting up the scorebook at the start of the third-place game between Hoopeston Area and Georgetown-Ridge Farm, as the Cornjerkers held a 10-6 lead after the first quarter.
It was reminiscent of each team's record coming into the game, with each sitting at .500. Not too many wins, not too many losses. By the end of Friday night's game, it was the Cornjerkers that came away with a winning record, besting the Buffaloes 38-33.
"A win's a win, and we'll take them when we can get them right now," Hoopeston Area coach Aaron Fell said. "Our bench is short with some injuries to key players. It's affected us a little bit, but ... the girls are picking up where they're needed."
The Cornjerkers (12-11) had increased their lead to 22-13 by halftime, but neither team found it easy scoring the ball.
G-RF (9-10) senior Kendall Roberts made a three-pointer two minutes into the second half, and threw her hands up as if to say, "Finally."
From there, it was all Buffaloes in the third quarter. Savana Cunningham made back-to-back layups with just over a minute left in the period to put G-RF ahead 25-22, but the Cornjerkers came right back with an old-fashioned three-point play by Auri Sigerill to tie it heading into the fourth.
"I had a lot of faith in my girls," Fell said. "They managed, and I just let them play through it."
Hoopeston Area scored the first few baskets of the final frame, but G-RF once again came back to make it a three-point game by the three-minute mark.
The Cornjerkers played keepaway for the final minute and escaped with the third-place win, the highest county placement in Fell's tenure.
Maddie Barnes led Hoopeston Area with 15 points. Roberts and Cunningham paced G-RF with nine and eight points, respectively.
"We felt like we should have been playing for the championship, but (finishing third) is definitely a pride aspect," Fell said. "The girls are excited. Even though you don't get a trophy anymore for third place, we can say we got third place and can battle back."
Comets place fifth
The fifth-place game between Oakwood and Armstrong-Potomac didn't exactly get off to the quickest start. For most of the first quarter, both teams were putting up plenty of shots, but none of them found the bottom of the net.
Nikita Taylor made a free throw two minutes in for the game's first score to give the Comets the lead, and the Trojans didn't score until Cala Reifsteck hit a jumper with 2:30 left in the quarter.
The Comets led 9-5 after the opening frame and went on to take fifth place with a 46-35 victory.
"It wasn't how we would have liked to play. We were slow and flat the whole game," Oakwood coach Stephanie Marsh said, "but it still counts as a win in our book."
The offenses picked up in the second quarter. Oakwood (9-17) came away with a few steals that led to transition baskets, but A-P (4-19) made a couple three-pointers to stay within striking distance. The Comets led 22-15 at halftime.
The Trojans refused to go away in the third quarter, despite Oakwood dialing up the defensive pressure. Brynn Spencer drilled a three out of the gate to trim the deficit to four points, and it stayed in that four-to-five-point range for most of the period.
Taylor made three baskets in the last 30 seconds of the quarter to finally give Oakwood a bit of a scoring run. Six points seemingly out of nowhere, and the Comets were all of a sudden up 36-27 going into the fourth quarter.
"That was huge," Marsh said. "I think that was our turning point. Once we got up a little more, it helped the girls relax like, 'OK, we've got a little bit of a cushion.' We were struggling to score, and that just gave us that relaxed environment we needed."
Oakwood rode that momentum to earn the win and fifth place. Taylor and Jaydah Arrowsmith led the Comets with 19 points apiece. Spencer scored nine points for the Trojans, and Reifsteck added eight points.
While it wasn't the championship, the Comets left the tournament with a win, and they're taking pride in that.
"It's always good to win your last game of the tournament," Marsh said. "I wasn't happy being seeded fifth, but we've had our ups and downs this season. We didn't finish worse than what we were seeded, so we've got to be happy with that."