DANVILLE — For three quarters, Schlarman Academy freshman Sierra Bell played like a ninth-grader on varsity.
She contributed but didn’t flash Player of the Game credentials. Entering the final eight minutes of Thursday’s Vermilion Valley Conference game against Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Bell had tried eight shots and scored eight points.
Then, the 5-foot-9 left-handed point guard took over.
She scored 15 of her game-high 23 points in the last period, including all 13 of the Hilltoppers’ points after the Buffaloes created a 47-47 tie with 4 minutes, 43 seconds remaining.
“Though she is a freshman, she plays like a mid-junior,” Schlarman coach Keith Peoples said. “I coach her as though she is a junior or senior. My expectations are high.
“Sierra makes so many good things happen when she slows the game down. There have been at least two games where she stood out in the fourth quarter and played very mature.”
Against the Buffaloes, Bell made her final five shots on drives to the basket. G-RF knew what to expect, but it didn’t matter.
“She was unstoppable,” G-RF coach Michelle Brooks said. “We packed it in, and still she was getting to the basket.
“We didn’t break down in the fourth quarter. She was slashing, and we couldn’t stop her.”
Bell’s toughest challenge came in the minutes after the game. Sought out by reporters for an interview, she was admittedly nervous.
“We had to manage the clock, be patient and look for our shooters,” Bell said, looking to an assistant for coaching. “Our defense had to turn it up.”
The Schlarman Academy shooters carried the load early. Of the team’s first 41 shots, 22 were from three-point range. Holly Huckstadt, one of the team’s two senior starters, knocked down six treys, accounting for all 18 of her points. The other senior, Sydne Bryant, had two three-pointers and totaled eight points.
“We maintain the mentality, ‘If you’re open, shoot it,’ ” Peoples said. “When they went man-to-man, that played into our game set.”
Brooks said as the game progressed, the question was where to focus the defense.
“We had to choose to overplay Huckstadt or double up on Bell,” Brooks said.
The Buffaloes, who dropped out of a share for the VVC lead, were led by Maya Green with 18 points. Brittany Hay, a former Schlarman athlete, had 15 points, nine rebounds, six steals and five assists. Teammate Callan Hall hauled down a game-high 11 rebounds, one more than the Hilltoppers’ Janelle Marion.
“She (Hay) is a great competitor and an awesome defensive person,” Bell said. “We had to bring the energy we played with in Peoria to here and feed off the energy.”
Green hit two of her four three-pointers in the final two minutes and brought the Buffaloes to within a point, 58-57, with 9.1 seconds to play.
Bell, who was shooting less than 50 percent on 129 free throw attempts prior to the game, capped a 7-for-8 showing from the line by sinking two shots with 5.4 seconds to go.
“It takes a special player to knock down free throws with the game on the line, when the crowd is loud and you have a twisted ankle,” Peoples said.
Bell, who has ambitions of playing in college, won’t settle for her current accomplishments.
“There’s still the rest of the season to go,” she said. “I can do better.”
Vermilion Valley standings
SCHOOL CONF. OVERALL
Armstrong-Potomac 6-1 11-6
Georgetown-Ridge Farm 4-2 10-3
Westville 4-3 7-13
Schlarman 4-2 9-9
Salt Fork 3-2 3-11
Bismarck-Henning 3-3 6-12
Oakwood 3-3 4-11
Milford 2-4 8-8
Chrisman 1-5 2-15
Hoopeston Area 0-5 5-10
Schlarman 60, Georgetown-Ridge Farm 57
Bismarck-Henning 43, Westville 32
Armstrong-Potomac 41, Chrisman 16
Salt Fork at Hoopeston Area, late
Oakwood at Milford, late