ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Except for the details, it was deja vu all over again as Hillsboro beat Smoky Valley in the regular-season finale, 55-45, last Tuesday at Brown Gymnasium.
Fans who enjoyed last month’s Trojan Classic championship game between the Trojans and Vikings were treated to a near replay.
In January, Hillsboro trailed Smoky by eight points at halftime, then came back to win by 11. This time, the deficit was 10 at the break, and the final margin was 10.
In both games, the Vikings dictated the flavor of the game their physical play. This time, Smoky led 13-8 at the end of the first quarter on the strength of an 8-2 run over the last three minutes. By halftime, the Vikings were up 24-14, thanks in large part to the Trojans’ 5-for-24 shooting.
“The first half we backed down, played soft and let them get all over us and do what they wanted to do,” coach Darrel Knoll said afterward.
“When they went to the basket, they went strong and we fouled them. When we went to the basket, we backed off and shot fade-away, fall-around, double-pump stuff and didn’t make any of it.”
Rather than talk about physical adjustments at intermission, Knoll said the thrust of his speech was about mental adjustments.
“It was a total challenge as to what we wanted to accomplish, how we wanted to end this season, and what kind of pride we had,” Knoll said. “Did we want to back down and let someone like them physically push us around, or did we want to play the type of ball we’re capable of? That was the whole halftime speech.”
Judging by the results, it must have been a good one. The Trojans came out with intensity, shutting down the Vikings on defense and creating some fast-break offense along the way.
When Tyler Weinbrenner hit an off-balance 14-footer with 3:09 left in the third quarter, the Trojans were within a point, 28-27.
After the two teams traded scores, the Trojans gave up two layups to Smoky while missing four of their own shots to trail, 34-29, heading into the final period.
With the Trojans down by four, 35-31, Dustin Jost came off the bench to hit a free throw and two layups off the fast break to pull Hillsboro back to within a point, 37-36, with 5:08 to play.
Layne Frick’s 12-footer on the Trojans’ next possession gave HHS the lead, 38-37, with 4:45 to play. After the inbounds pass, Jost deflected the ball away from his man in the backcourt. Weinbrenner picked it up, fed it back to Jost, who scored the layup and was fouled as the crowd roared.
Jost’s bonus free throw put the Trojans ahead by four. After Andy Brubacher hit both ends of a one-and-one moments later, Jost scored one more fast-break layup with 2:03 to go to put the Trojans in command, 45-37.
But Smoky didn’t roll over. Darrin Hopp responded with a 3-pointer seconds later.
Following a Viking timeout, their strategy became clear: make Hillsboro win the game on the free-throw line-a place where the Trojans had been lackluster most of the night.
But not now. Hillsboro nailed 10 of 14 charities over the last 1:46 to seal the victory.
Jost’s 12 points in the final quarter gave him a team-high 16 for the game. The 5-10 junior said he was simply in the right place at the right time; the real credit for the comeback belonged to the whole team.
“Our defense picked up a lot, and we finally started pushing the ball and getting layups,” Jost said.
He said the 10-point deficit at halftime hadn’t discouraged him.
“The first time we played them, we were down by eight at half and we came back and won,” he said. “We were confident we could come back. We just had to start playing defense.”
Knoll said he was happy with the way his team responded down the stretch and pointed to Jost’s play as a catalyst.
“He came out, got those steals and really got us fired up,” Knoll said.
“Then the fans got into it when we took that lead and he got fouled. What a turning point in the game.”
Brubacher and Frick each contributed 10 points for the Trojans, who shot nearly 46 percent from 2-point range but were only 1-for-8 from 3-point territory.
The Trojans had a critical edge at the free-throw line, 20-of-32 compared to 6-of-11 for the visitors.
With the win, the Trojans broke a losing streak of three straight Tuesday night games to finish the season with a 17-3 record-good enough to earn them the No. 1 seed in sub-state play.