The Danville Schlarman Hilltoppers chose to keep things simple Friday in their semifinal win over the Lebanon Greyhounds at the Class 1A state girls basketball tournament.
Janiah Newell scored a game-high 15 points and was a perfect 6 of 6 from the foul line in the fourth quarter as Schlarman ended Lebanon's dream of a state title with a 51-40 win at Redbird Arena.
The Hilltoppers, who are also making their first state tournament appearance, used a layup and a 3-point basket by Newell to take an early 9-2 lead. Junior Capria Brown then connected on a 3-point jumper on the Hilltoppers' next possession as the Schlarman (32-1) made its first four shots.
The Hilltoppers connected on eight of their first 10 shots to take a 19-10 lead after one quarter. Lebanon (31-2), getting a combined 24 points from sisters Kendra and Krista Bass closed to within five points on several occasions late in the third and throughout much of the fourth quarter.
But key defensive stops and a 14-of 16 performance from the free-throw line by the Hilltoppers in the final period proved to be the difference as they move into Saturday's state title game against Stockton.
"We're not the tallest team in the world, and there are teams who shoot 3-pointers better we do. But honestly what makes this basketball team is on the defensive end of the floor,'' Schlarman coach Keith Peoples said.
Lebanon will take on Bethany Okaw Valley (29-6) in the third-place game at 11 a.m. Saturday.
The Hilltoppers, who have three NCAA Division I prospects on their roster, looked like they might run away with it after the first quarter.
But Lebanon, cheered on by hundreds of purple-clad fans who took up three sections of seats, didn't quit. With five minutes left in the game, the Greyhounds were still within striking distance, trailing by five. But Schlarman responded with a near-flawless performance from the free-throw line.
"I think anybody who was here knows it was a much closer than the score indicates,'' Lebanon coach Chad Cruthis said of the 11-point final margin.
"Honestly, I thought after the first four minutes of the game, we did a good job in defending them," he said. "What I'm really proud of is that when it was a seven- or eight-point lead in the first quarter, it could have very quickly been a 12-14 point game.
"Our girls fought back, and we had some chances to close to within two or three points that we just didn't convert on. But you have to give credit to them."
Schlarman played better down the stretch, Cruthis said.
Getting eight points and four rebounds from senior Madison Schoenfeld, Lebanon closed to within 25-18 at halftime and was within five points — 33-28 — entering the fourth quarter.
Anaya Peoples and Brown scored early in the fourth quarter as the Hilltoppers' lead expanded back to nine points. Kendra Bass, playing with a heavy brace on her injured right knee, made a layup to 37-32 with five minutes left.
But Schlarman went to work from the foul line. Of the 18 points scored by the Hilltoppers in the closing period, 14 came from the charity stripe.
"We didn't play our best, and once again we got off to the slow start. We do that sometimes,'' Lebanon senior guard Krista Bass said. "We had some chances to get closer in the fourth quarter. We just didn't convert like we normally do.''
Kendra Bass led Lebanon with 13 points, while Krista Bass added 11. The Greyhounds shot just 35.7 percent from the field — 15 of 42. Schoenfeld added nine rebounds to go along with her eight points.
Lebanon will return home following the third-place game and will be greeted with a homecoming celebration.
Cruthis anticipated they would arrive home close to 7:45 p.m. Saturday. The team will get a fire truck ride around the city with a reception to follow at the high school.