BY CHAD DARE
The Vermilion County Tournament and the David S. Palmer Arena has been a special place for Bismarck-Henning girls basketball coach Mike Stephens.
His Lady Blue Devils came into the 2013 tourney attempting to win their sixth straight title and Bismarck-Henning started that defense with a 32-27 victory over the Salt Fork Storm.
“I told the girls that I could probably talk for an hour about the game that we’ve played with Salt Fork in the County Tournament,” said Stephens, whose team beat the Salt Fork in the 2008, 2009 and 2010 championship games. “The kids know how important the County is to Bismarck-Henning.
“And personally, I love coming here (Palmer Arena). I’m a Danville guy and my friends don’t see us play during the year. But, they are able to come here, so it’s a neat tournament for me.”
And while Bismarck-Henning, which has won 16 straight games at Palmer Arena, doesn’t return a starter from last year’s championship team, sophomore Brooke Walsh admits the team feels the pressure of trying to defend the title for its school.
“We are really pushing to win it again for a six-peat,” she said. “It’s a lot of pressure, but we enjoy it. It seems like we play better under pressure, we hustle more and play harder.
“Conference is very important, but County is where we can show where our team has improved this year.”
On Saturday morning, Walsh definitely showed her recent improvement, according to Stephens, as she scored a game-high 12 points, pulled down a game-high 13 rebounds and she dished out a game-high five assists.
But both her and coach Stephens thought she had a quiet first half with just two points, three assists and six rebounds.
“At halftime, we set up a couple things to isolate her and get her going,” Stephens said. “Once she knocked down a bucket or two, she got going. She’s been improving by leaps and bounds on the offensive end over the last four or five games.”
Walsh said the biggest difference for her was aggressiveness.
“I had to start looking for my shot more,” she said. “I had to pick up my play to help my team out.”
Salt Fork coach Jeff Carleton said that Walsh was a point of emphasis.
“We worked on that all day yesterday, and the day before,” he said. “We talked about it all day today and in timeouts. I guess we kind of forgot which way was her left was in the second half.
“We had her shut down in the first half, but in the second half, we let her go.”
And while that was a problem for the Storm, which has lost eight straight and fell to 3-13, their bigger problem was 26.2 percent shooting (11-of-42).
“That’s been our problem as of late,” said Carleton, noting Salt Fork shot 25 percent in a loss to Oakwood on Thursday night. “We are running our offense. We are doing the things we need to do. We are doing some good things defensively, but we have to score. We are missing too many shots.”
Stephens credited his Blue Devils with a good defensive game, he was also very pleased with the play of his lone senior, Lexi Ballard.
“I thought Ballard was absolutely crucial today,” he said. “I thought she did one of her best jobs of getting us into our offense.”
Bismarck-Henning committed just four second-half turnovers and just 12 in the game.
“I thought Lexi, (Addie) Voyles and Walsh really handled the ball well for us,” Stephens said.
With the victory, the Blue Devils (7-14) are 1-0 in Pool A with a contest on Monday against the top-seeded Armstrong-Potomac Trojans.
“We have to come back Monday and play twice as hard,” Walsh said.
Salt Fork’s Kalyn Learnard led the Storm in scoring with 11 points and she had a team-high 10 rebounds coming off the bench.
Up next for Salt Fork is a Wednesday game against Armstrong-Potomac.