Trojans survive Classic struggle with Hesston

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The basketball fan who sees the cup half full would describe the championship game of the Trojan Classic on Saturday as an epic defensive battle.

The fan who sees the cup as half empty would say it was a game where neither team was executing well on offense.

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. But in the end, it was Hillsboro’s resolve to stay ahead down the stretch that gave it a hard-fought 38-31 victory over Hesston and its eighth Trojan Classic title in 11 years.

“We should be happy to beat an excellent team in the finals of the Trojan Classic,” Hillsboro coach Darrel Knoll said. “We made enough plays and we battled enough to win. We’ve got to be really happy and really pleased with that. It’s not like we beat somebody who wasn’t good. It was a great game.”

Great as in gritty, not pretty.

The Trojans missed their first seven shots from the field and made just under 30 percent (16-54) for the game. Hesston missed its first six shots and finished at 27 percent (14-51).

It wasn’t until the midpoint of the opening period that anybody scored. Hesston broke the ice on a basket by Kelly Linton at the 4:00 mark.

The Trojans finally got on the board when Derek Hamm nailed a pair of free throws with 3:05 to play. A three-basket burst by Kyle Kroeker, including one 3-pointer, gave Hillsboro a 9-2 lead at the break.

The Trojans managed four baskets in the next period, including 3-pointers from Patrick Harrison and Daniel Deckert, to push the lead to 19-9 at intermission. Hillsboro went to the locker room shooting 27 percent (7-26) from the floor and Hesston at 18 percent (4-22).

“Hesston played hard and did a lot of good things on defense, forcing us to do some things we don’t normally do,” Knoll said. “I thought we got caught standing a lot, and early we missed a lot of shots inside that should have been made.

“But they did the same thing, and I think the more shots both teams missed, the more you kind of clutch on your shot. Instead of shooting the ball, you’re aiming it.

“The fact that both of them were playing pretty tenacious defense plays into that as well. Not a lot of wide-open looks out there to be had.”

Hesston appeared to have recovered its touch on offense in the early minutes of the third quarter, scoring eight unanswered points over the first 2:08 to cut Hillsboro’s lead to 19-17.

But a basket in the paint by Hamm off a great feed from Harrison ignited an 8-0 Trojan run. Hamm contributed six of those points, including another bucket in the paint at the 2:32 mark to push his team’s lead back to 10, 27-17.

But the Swathers got back-to-back 3-pointers from Brandon Leichty and Grady Pauls to make the score 27-23 at the final break.

Knoll said his team’s ability to come back after Hesston’s run and carry a lead into the final quarter may have been the turning point of the game.

“When you have the lead you can dictate the game as much as possible,” he said. “We went through a stretch where we made some plays I thought were questionable, but overall we really dictated the tempo in the last quarter.

“If we had made our free throws, it wouldn’t have even come down to what it did.”

What it came down to was a nail-biter as the Trojans made only three of 10 free-throw attempts over the final 3:31-including misses on the front end of consecutive one-and-one opportunities.

Fortunately for the Trojans, Hesston was unable to take advantage, shooting 1-for-6 from the floor over the same period and missing a one-and-one of its own.

“We need to do something about our free-throw shooting,” Knoll said. “We’ve been so good up to this point. The last two or three games we’ve struggled a little bit. But we’ll get that fixed because we are good shooters.”

Hamm was the man of the hour, finishing with a game-high 17 points. Take away the senior’s 5-for-10 shooting from the floor and 7-for-8 from the line and his teammates hovered at 26 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

Pauls led Hesston with 9 points.

Shooting aside, Knoll was pleased with his team’s performance.

“We played a hard-nosed game, and we just need to realize that sometimes you’re going to win ugly-but it’s a win,” he said. “And it’s not just a win, it’s a championship.”

Thomas More Prep-A great first half enabled Hillsboro to persevere through a drawn-out free-throw fest in the second half and register a solid 68-45 win over the Monarchs in Friday’s semifinals contest.

If last year’s debacle against TMP was playing in the back of the minds of coach Darrel Knoll’s players, they sent the message early that they were mentally ready for the rematch.

“I thought we played an outstanding first half,” Knoll said. “We competed hard. Early, we were getting beat on the boards pretty badly because we were allowing them to move us out physically. I thought we set down a lot harder and really battled for the ball.”

The game went back and forth during the first few minutes, but Lucas Hamm gave the Trojans the lead for good at 7-6 with a pair of free throws with 3:03 to play in the quarter.

Eric Weinbrenner hit back-to-back 3-pointers to put the Trojans ahead 13-8, and from that point Hillsboro slowly but surely extended its lead.

The Trojans led 15-10 at the first break and then 37-21 at intermission, including bang-bang buckets by Derek Hamm and Weinbrenner in the final 3.5 seconds.

The third quarter started normally enough, but after TMP coach Joe Hertel was whistled for a technical foul at the 5:43 mark, the game slowly devolved into a free-throw-shooting contest-particularly for the Trojans, who shot 11 free throws in the third quarter and 19 more in the fourth quarter to finish with 50 for the game.

Had the Trojans been as effective from the line as they usually are, the final margin of victory would have been bigger. As it was, Hillsboro shot 18-for-30 for the half and 32-for-50 for the game.

The frequent fouls changed the flow of the game.

“After that technical, it seemed like it became a little bit of a foul-fest,” Knoll said. “Part of it was I thought we let up a little bit defensively and had some reach fouls, and it took some momentum out of the game.

“Then both teams got a little sloppy because, when you’re walking up and down the court shooting free throws, it’s hard to get in rhythm.”

The Trojans finished with four players in double figures. Weinbrenner topped the list with 18 points, including 10 of 12 free throws, Kyle Kroeker added 15, Derek Hamm 13 and Lucas Hamm 11.

The Trojans shot a tepid 36 percent from the floor (16-44) and the Monarchs were at 35 percent (19-55). The game turned at the free-throw line, where Hillsboro outscored TMP 32-6.

Knoll affirmed his team’s mental toughness during both the good and rough stretches of the game.

“That’s one thing this team does well,” he said. “We battle when things don’t seem to be bouncing our way. I was pleased with that again tonight.”

Coming-The Trojans were scheduled to take their 11-0 record to El Dorado on Tuesday for a game postponed from Jan. 4. A complete report of the contest will appear in this week’s Free Press Extra, on newsstands late Thursday afternoon.

On Friday, the Trojans travel to Marion to take on their intra-county rivals, the Warriors (6-6). The game will begin around 8 p.m.

The following Tuesday, Hillsboro will hit the road again, this time to face a tough Halstead Dragon squad in a key Mid Central Activities Association matchup.

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