ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Brutal scheduling, a traditionally difficult playing site and a good opponent proved to be too much for the Hillsboro boys’ to overcome Saturday as the Trojans dropped a 64-54 decision at Smoky Valley for their first loss of the season.
To make up the game postponed Feb. 8, the Trojans (18-1) found themselves back on the bus some 10 hours after returning from the long haul to Ellinwood around midnight in order to accommodate the 2 p.m. start that Smoky Valley required.
The Vikings (12-7), who played at home the night before, were primed for their crack at the unbeaten Trojans in a gymnasium that often has been difficult for Hillsboro teams in the past.
Even so, the Trojans got off to a strong start with a 9-3 surge over the first three minutes.
But a traditional three-point play by the Vikings’ Kyle Hubele sparked an 8-0 burst that Hubele capped with a 3-point basket giving the home team its first lead, 11-9, with 3:41 left in the opening period.
From that point, the game was a dogfight. The two teams were tied at 16 at the first break and neither team led by more than six points until the final minute of the game.
“We executed really well the first part of the game, and then I thought the momentum shifted when several rebounds that we should have had, they just hammered out of us,” coach Darrel Knoll said.
The second quarter was extremely tight as the two teams traded scores. The Vikings built its biggest lead at 27-24 on a steal and layup by Rowdy Jones with 2:55 to play, but the Trojans were back to within a point by halftime, 29-28, when Kyle Kroeker hit both ends of a one-and-one.
Twice in the first five minutes of the third quarter, Smoky Valley pushed its advantage to six points, but each time the Trojans closed the gap.
When Patrick Harrison scored in the paint on a feed from Derek Hamm, the Trojans trailed 43-40 with 1:41 left in the period-a score that stood until the final break as both teams missed their last two shots from the floor.
In the early minutes of the final period, Daniel Deckert kept the Trojans in the game almost singlehandedly, sinking all three Hillsboro baskets, including a 3-pointer at the 4:51 mark that pulled the Trojans to within a point, 48-47.
But over the next four minutes, the Trojans managed only two shots from the floor-and missed both-while the Vikings scored 10 unanswered points.
A 3-pointer from the left wing by Kroeker with 55 seconds left in the game ended Smoky’s run, but the Trojans were unable to mount a serious threat as the Vikings made 10 of 12 free throws in the final 1:13 to nail down the win.
Knoll was reluctant to blame the loss on scheduling, but he admitted his team was not its usual self.
“I think the guys were a little bit tired, but that’s mental,” he said. “You’ve got to be ready to play. I thought we started the game really well and just didn’t continue it. It was just one of those things where things didn’t go our way.”
A bigger factor, he said, was the physical style of play that prevailed.
“A physical game is Smoky Valley’s game, it’s not necessarily our game,” he said. “The way the game was played today, we just got out-hammered more than anything else in terms of the inside game.”
For the second straight game, the Trojans’ outside shooting undermined their overall effort. The Trojans followed an 0-for-16 performance from 3-point land the night before with 3-for-12 shooting on Saturday.
“We’re struggling right now shooting the ball, and have been the last couple of games,” Knoll said. “We just need to find our stroke. We’ve got to get that part of our game back.”
The Trojans had three players in double figures. Deckert led the way with 15, Lucas Hamm added 11 and Kroeker 10.
“I know we played as hard as we could today,” Knoll said. “What I didn’t see was the spring in our step-the same kind of flash and desire that I’m used to seeing out of the guys. We were trying really hard, but it just wasn’t the typical Hillsboro Trojan team out there.”
Ellinwood-The Hillsboro boys packed everything they needed for the long trip to Ellinwood on Friday except their outside shooting.
Despite an 0-for-16 showing from 3-point land, the Trojans were hot enough inside the arc to more than handle the Eagles, 57-39, for their 18th straight win.
Hillsboro offset its struggles from the deep with 65 percent shooting (20-32) from 2-point range.
“I thought we played really well tonight,” coach Darrel Knoll said. “The only thing we didn’t do was shoot the basketball. We had wide-open-look shots that we normally would make, and for whatever reason they weren’t going down.”
The Trojans started the game with an 11-2 run that was fueled on 7-for-7 free-throw shooting by Lucas Hamm, including three when he was fouled on a shot from behind the arc.
By the end of the first quarter, Hillsboro led 20-11 and had made nine of 10 free throws.
The Trojans extended their lead to 15 points, 32-17, when Kyle Kroeker scored in the paint on a great feed from Eric Weinbrenner. But the Eagles took advantage of some Trojan fouls late in the quarter to pull within 12 by intermission at 32-20.
The two teams played evenly through the third quarter but a prayer thrown up at the buzzer by Ellinwood’s Daniel Snell was answered and the Eagles were within 10 at the final break, 41-31.
After another basket by Snell pulled Ellinwood to within eight points to start the fourth quarter, a basket by Daniel Deckert launched an 10-2 run that put the game out of reach by the 4:00 minute mark.
Deckert finished as the team’s high-point man, leading a balanced attack with 13 points. Right behind him were Derek Hamm with 12 points, Lucas Hamm 11 and Kroeker 10.
The Trojans rolled up 20 assists with some outstanding passing, Kroeker led the team with five.
“Offensively, we moved the ball well,” Knoll said. “Down the stretch, when we pulled the ball out and they had to stretch out their zone and man us, we did an outstanding job of breaking them down for easy shots.”
The Trojans matched their 20 assists on offense with 20 steals on defense. Derek Hamm led the way with five. In all, Ellinwood committed 28 turnovers to Hillsboro’s 10.
“I thought, defensively, we got after them,” Knoll said. “Every look they had was a tough look, so I was really pleased with the way the guys played. I saw a lot of good tenacity.”
Even though the Eagles shot a respectable 48 percent from the field, the Trojans’ effort on defense limited them to only 29 shots for the game compared to 47 for Hillsboro.
Jeff Steinert scored 13 points to lead Ellinwood while Snell finished with 11.
As for taking the collar on 3-point shooting, Knoll’s said it was simply one of those nights when the deep shots simply weren’t falling.
“Unfortunately, we didn’t recognize that fact and we kept shooting them and made the game a little closer than it needed to be,” he said.
“If we hit the shots we normally hit, this isn’t even a game.”
Coming-The Trojans were scheduled to finish their regular season with a game against Hoisington (4-14) in Brown Gymnasium on Tuesday. A report of that game will appear in the Free Press Extra, which will be on newsstands late Thursday afternoon.
Regardless of the outcome, the boys have clinched the No. 1 seed in next week’s sub-state tournament and would play the No. 8 seed, Sterling (1-18) at Brown Gymnasium on Monday, Feb. 28.
The semifinals and finals will be played at Lyons.
Also in the eight-team field are Halstead (14-5), Hesston (13-6), Ellsworth (11-7), Lyons (11-7), Medicine Lodge (10-7) and Marion (7-12).
The official pairings will be posted on the Free Press Web site as soon as they become available.