The visiting Wildcats of Salem tossed out a number of different defenses against Effingham on Friday night, from a 1-2-2 halfcourt trap to a 3-2 zone. No matter what Salem attempted, however, the Hearts had the answer, dominating the Wildcats for a 69-29 victory that gave Effingham its first outright Apollo Conference title since 2004.
"It feels great," junior Leighton Lark said. "We're in a tough conference, so it feels really good to be in the top spot."
The Hearts wasted no time taking control of this one, jumping out to an early 9-2 advantage capped off by Hunter Keith's floater in the paint. After a tough jumper from Salem's Nick Hempen, Effingham senior Tim Gardewine scored on a jump shot in the lane to start another big run late in the first.
"I thought we dictated a lot of things early tonight," Hearts' coach Ron Reed said. "We came out and shot it real well."
After Gardewine's bucket, Keith dished out a pair of well-timed assists to Lark and Josh Stombaugh to build a 17-4 advantage. Lark connected from deep on the next Hearts' possession before a late Salem free throw made it a 20-5 ballgame through one quarter.
"I had a lot of open looks," Lark said, "and there were a lot of good screens set for me by my teammates."
Lark continued to dominate in the second, scoring five straight points midway through the frame. The 6-6 forward coasted for an easy lay-up off a Salem turnover, and hit another 3-pointer moments later to stretch the Hearts' lead to 29-9.
"He shot it real well," Reed said. "He's sort of been a guy we depend on for defensive stuff, so it was good to see him get his shot going."
The Hearts closed the second quarter much like the first, ending the period on a 6-0 run to take a 35-11 lead into the locker room. Trenton Frey scored off a nice assist from Keith, who found his own range on the next trip down the floor, dialing up a 3-pointer with one minute to play. A late Jake Stombaugh free throw gave Effingham its 24-point lead at the half.
Effingham was just as impressive on defense in the first two quarters, limiting Salem to just three made field goals. On top of holding the Wildcats to 11 points, the Hearts repeatedly cut in front of a Salem pass to generate easy looks at the other end. At halftime, Effingham had already forced 10 turnovers.
"We were able to create some turnovers and turn that into offense," Reed said. "We were able to create some separation in the second quarter."
The Hearts have looked like a new team as of late, able to pull away from weaker opponents throughout the game. Whereas some weaker squads hung around against Effingham earlier in the season, Reed was enthusiastic that his squad continued to focus on Friday night.
"That's the nice thing about this group," he said, "especially in the past two weeks. They have been doing a lot better job of finishing teams off."
After the second half opened with a Salem bucket, Effingham extinguished any lingering hopes of a comeback by pouring on 17 unanswered points to build a 52-13 lead with three minutes to play in the third quarter. Josh Stombaugh closed the huge run with his jumper from the low block.
His bucket one possession later after a 3-pointer from Salem's Nick Conklin finished the third-quarter scoring for Effingham. With eight minutes to play, home team led comfortably, 54-20.
Ahead by more than 30, Effingham rested its starters in the fourth, opting to give plenty of minutes to the younger players on the roster. Even then the Hearts didn't disappoint, outscoring Salem 15-9 in the final frame to claim a 40-point victory. The game, never really in doubt, gave Effingham its first outright Apollo conference title since 2004, pushing its record in league play to 9-1.
"I told these guys, 'don't take this achievement lightly,'" Reed said. "It's truly a great accomplishment."
Jake Stombaugh led the Hearts with 18 points on the night, and Lark had a steady performance with 16 points and six rebounds. Josh Stombaugh chipped in with nine points for Effingham, who improve to 19-6 with the win.
Now with a conference title under their belts, the Hearts will look to gain some momentum before tournament play when Effingham welcomes Mount Vernon on Tuesday. The regular season finale is next Friday against Mahomet-Seymour.
"We have two very good clubs coming into our place next week," Reed said. "It should really prepare us for the postseason, and we're also one win away from that 20-game mark. That would be a worthy accomplishment as well."
Salem- 5 6 9 9 - 29
Effingham- 20 15 19 15 - 69
Salem- Rush 8, Conklin 7, Alberson 3, Hempen 3, Foreman 2, Helm 2, McCay 2, Mercer 2, .
Effingham- Ja. Stombaugh 18, Lark 16, Jo. Stombaugh 9, Keith 5, Foreman 4, Gardewine 4, Knight 3, Daugherty 2, Frey 2. Mahaffey 2, Niebrugge 2, Robinson 2.