ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
If the mark of a champion is playing well when the goods are on the line, the Hillsboro High School girls team fit the bill Friday night.
In an early-season showdown with its previously undefeated Mid Division rival, Sterling, the Trojans played well from start to finish and beat the Black Bears, 52-44, despite a 23-point performance from Sterling standout Crystal Pitts.
The win put the Trojans into sole possession of first place at 4-0, and lifted their overall record to 8-1. Sterling dropped to 3-1 in division play and 6-4 overall.
“We played four solid quarters,” coach Becky Carlson said. “The little things have been killing us, like not blocking out and not getting all the way back on defense and letting teams have easy baskets, didn’t happen tonight.”
“I felt it was probably the best game we’ve played,” she added. “We executed our offense really well. We were patient, we looked for good shots.”
The first half was a classic back-and-forth battle. Sterling led 7-6 after one quarter, but with balanced scoring from Shannon Kroeker, Julie Hett, Amber Hefley and Angela Herzet, the Trojans rallied to take a 23-20 halftime lead.
Key to the Trojan surge was their play on the defensive boards, essentially holding the Black Bears to one shot per possession.
For a time, that was all Pitts needed to keep her team in the game. The sharp-shooting senior missed a few shots early, but by halftime was hitting the hole consistently and had 11 points.
Unlike several previous games, when the Trojans played well in the third quarter after playing subpar basketball in previous quarters, HHS on this night simply raised its good play one more notch to expand its lead to 10 points, 38-28, heading into the final period.
Hett contributed six of her team-high 14 points during the surge.
HHS enjoyed its biggest lead of the night when Hefley nailed a 3-pointer to give the Trojans a 48-33 advantage with 4:06 left in the game.
The Black Bears never mounted a serious threat down the stretch. Only a 3-pointer by Pitts in the final seconds brought the margin back to single digits.
The Trojans more than balanced Pitts’ game-high 23 points with three players in double figures. In addition to Hett’s 14 points, Herzet scored 12 and Kroeker 11.
Carlson said every player who entered the game contributed something positive.
“It’s not anything against the other teams we’ve played, but I think the girls knew they had to stay focused in this game, especially when a team has a player like Crystal Pitts, who is going to try to take over a basketball game,” she said.
Nickerson-If character is measured by the depth of adversity, the Hillsboro girls played like giants in the second half of their 46-35 win over Nickerson Tuesday, Jan. 9.
In basketball, adversity doesn’t get much deeper than the frigid 1-for-26 shooting performance the Trojans endured in the first half. In fact, sitting in the locker room trailing only 22-9 may have given coach Becky Carlson’s troops cause for hope.
“At half time I said, ‘Can we beat these guys?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, we can beat them,'” Carlson said. “So I think they thought they could. They just needed that break at halftime. They were ready to go back in, take a deep breath and start over.”
Hillsboro needed a redo. Nothing fell the Trojans’ way during the first two quarters. Jenna Jost finally coaxed a 10-footer to drop through with 2:11 to play in the half to register her team’s first and only field goal.
Even when Nickerson tried to help by fouling, Hillsboro cashed in only seven times in 16 attempts. Two of the misses were on the front end of a one-and-one.
The fouls did work in Hillsboro’s favor, though. Becky Crawmer, Nickerson’s 5-11 post, looked unstoppable early, scoring six points in the paint before the game was even five minutes old.
But she picked up her third foul in opening moments of the second quarter and was never a factor after that.
Another Panther scorer, Sarah Powell, picked up her fourth foul early in the third quarter and
didn’t return until the final quarter. By then, the Trojans had seized control of the contest.
And how did they manage that? Pressure on defense and patience on offense.
“The main thing I told them (at halftime) was there are no 10-point baskets, you have to take your time,” Carlson said. “We needed to execute our offense. I didn’t want any shots outside the paint for a while because I think we were just trying to catch up all at once.”
The formula worked to near perfection as the Trojans shut out the Panthers on defense and found their offensive confidence early with some easy baskets off of turnovers.
Angela Herzet hit a free throw 17 seconds into the half on Crawmer’s fourth foul, then followed 25 seconds later with a lay-in off a turnover.
Julie Hett added two free throws with six minutes left in the quarter, then laid in a rebound 20 seconds later after another Nickerson turnover.
And so it went. When the third-quarter buzzer sounded, Hillsboro had shut out the home team 20-0 and had a 29-22 lead heading into the final frame.
Powell returned in the fourth quarter to score six points in the first three-and-a-half minutes, and Nickerson pulled to within one, 29-28 with 5:43 to play.
But Hillsboro’s Amber Hefley responded seconds later with a 3-pointer and Hett followed with two more baskets to cool the Panther comeback and secure the win.
“I told them at halftime that to be a great basketball team, it takes talent and character,” Carlson said. “I said, ‘In the second half you’re going to have to show some character,’ and I think in the second half they did.”
Hett finished with 11 points, 10 coming in the second half. Jill Hein and Shannon Kroeker each added eight and Herzet seven.
Hein registered six steals and Dionne Jost five to fuel the turnaround.
Coming-Though the seeding has not been announced, the Trojans will likely resume play Monday as the No. 1 seed at the Southeast of Saline tournament.
Once the pairings are officially released, possibly Wednesday, you can find information about time, date and opponent on the Free Press Web site or by calling the Free Line at 947-3363.