ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
by Don Ratzlaff
For Hillsboro coach Becky Carlson, Hillsboro’s 53-48 win over Junction City Friday night was all about character.
Her team showed a ton of it by coming back from a humbling defeat the night before to take third place at the Southeast of Saline Girls’ Invitational Basketball Tournament.
“They responded just as I thought they would-they came back,” Carlson said.
Indeed they did. Getting great assists from her teammates, Shannon Kroeker scored 14 of her game-high and season-high 22 points low in the paint and secured a place on the all-tournament team.
But even more dramatic was the return of senior guards Amber Hefley and Jill Hein, who combined for 23 points on 9-of-13 shooting-including 5-of-6 from behind the arc-after going a collective 0-for-10 against Salina South the previous night.
In fact, it was Hefley’s 3-pointer from the right corner with 38.5 seconds left that broke a 48-48 tie and lifted the Trojans to the victory, their 11th in 13 games.
Hillsboro led for much of the game, but the Blue Jays never let the Trojans take control.
“There were times when we could have gotten down and we didn’t,” Carlson said. “Nobody remembered we had a bad shooting night (against Salina South).”
Well, a few fans might have.
But fears that Hillsboro might continue Thursday’s woeful shooting form vanished in the first quarter when the Trojans hit six of nine shots from the field to take a 14-13 lead at quarter’s end.
A run of six unanswered points by Kroeker midway through the second quarter, followed by a bucket by Robyn Penner, gave Hillsboro its largest lead of the night, 25-17, with 3:24 left in the first half.
But the Blue Jays came back with two straight buckets by sophomore shooting guard Brianna Buchanan, then sank three of four free throws to close the gap to 25-24 by the time the buzzer sounded.
The Trojans led by as many as five points during the third period and by six in the opening minutes of the fourth. But Junction City battled back once more and took a 48-46 lead on a free throw by Buchanan with 3:43 left in the game.
One minute later, Kroeker tied the score by hitting both ends of a one-and-one. The two teams then traded possessions until Hefley hit the game-winner in the waning seconds.
Kroeker iced the game with a layup with 10 seconds to go after a traveling call against the Blue Jays aborted their hope of getting a game-tying shot.
Hillsboro’s shooting improved dramatically to 61.1 percent against Junction City and they racked up 20 assists. But the Trojans also turned the ball over a season-high 24 times.
A key difference this night, Carlson said, was that her players didn’t let their mistakes rattle them.
“What I’ve been trying to get across to these girls is if you make a mistake, don’t worry about it,” she said. “That’s what I get paid for-you just play. I think tonight I saw that out of them.”
Defensively, the Trojans had their hands full against Junction City’s bigger and stronger inside game, prompting Carlson to do some improvising along the way.
“Especially toward the end, we went to a zone because they don’t look for that outside shot much,” she said. “I think that frustrated them and they didn’t take very good shots.
“We don’t play zone very much, but I thought we did a good job of running it,” she added. “I was proud of them. Whatever I threw out-like the 1-3-1 (defense) that we haven’t run all year-they did a good job of running that also.”
Salina South 45, HHS 28
Against lesser teams this season, the Trojans have shot poorly but still found a way to win. But against Class 5A Salina South, the Trojans found nothing down the stretch but more frustration en route to a 17-point loss in Thursday’s semifinals.
Hillsboro trailed by 10 points heading into the final quarter, but some solid minutes by the Trojan bench late in the third period had stirred hope for an HHS comeback.
But the turnaround never developed. Instead, the Trojans missed all 13 of their shots in the final quarter to ensure their second defeat of the season.
The tone of the game was set early when Hillsboro made only three of its first 13 shots. Meanwhile, the Cougars’ sharp-shooting guards nailed five 3-pointers on the way to posting a 23-6 lead with 4:41 to play in the first half.
Coach Becky Carlson said her team struggled to adjust to Salina’s long-range assault in the early going.
“You work on help defense so much, and that’s what we did,” she said. “A girl would drive to the bucket and we’d help out-then they’d kick the ball back out to (South guard Becky Wilson). We’re doing everything I teach them-then all of a sudden I say, ‘Don’t do that.’
“I’m not making excuses, but that’s actually where a lot of their shots came from.”
Watson finished with 16 points and was eventually named the tournament’s most valuable player.
Had the Trojans found their own shooting stroke, they might have dug themselves out of the hole. They did close the gap to 26-15 by halftime and crept as close as eight points, 33-25, on a Shannon Kroeker bucket with 2:07 left in the third quarter.
But the wheels fell off for the Trojans over the final eight minutes.
“I thought we had good shots,” Carlson said. “I just think we rushed and got frustrated.”
Hillsboro made only 12 of 39 shots inside the arc and missed all five attempts behind it for a combined 27.3 percent from the field-their worst performance of the season.
Kroeker managed to break double figures with 10 points on 5-of-16 shooting, but the other four Trojan starters were a combined 2-for-16 from the field.
Carlson gave some credit to the Salina South defense.
“They played good defense,” she said. “They played very aggressive and were very physical. That was not to our favor.”
Carlson praised the play of her bench during the last four minutes of the third quarter when she was looking desperately for something to click.
“I felt like my bench played awesome,” she said. “Shelby (Estelle) come in and did a good job, and so did Holly (Lindsay), Andrea (Peachey), Katie (Fast) and April (Funk). Those are things we have to look at as positives, and we can’t dwell on the negative right now.
“We needed a game where we could see what we need to do to get better, and that’s what we have to do now,” Carlson added.
Coming-The Trojans returned to MCAA action Tuesday night with a non-division game against Haven. The results of that contest are available on the Free Line (947-3363) and the Free Press Web site (old.hillsborofreepress.com).
On Friday, the Trojans travel to Wichita Collegiate, then return to Brown Gymnasium Feb. 5 for a game against Halstead.