ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
He made the shot every kid who plays basketball has fantasized: a game-winning half-court swisher as the buzzer sounds in a tournament finale.
Hillsboro senior Kyle Kroeker’s heroics gave the Trojans a 53-50 overtime victory over Rossville on the last day of the Dickinson County Classic in Abilene.
The only flaw in this dream finish was that the game was for third place instead of the championship. But it was a huge victory nonetheless for Hillsboro, a largely inexperienced team that made significant strides from its shaky 68-59 loss to Abilene in the tournament and season opener.
“Once I threw it up, I thought it had a chance,” said Kroeker, whose game-winner capped a marvelous tournament performance of 57 points over three games. “I was just hoping.”
But Kroeker’s heroics was only half the story in this contest-literally. The Trojans would not have been in position to win the game in the second half if not for the first-half performance of junior Lucas Hamm, who carried the freight for Hillsboro with 17 points in the first two quarters.
With Kroeker facing a Bulldawg double team for much of the game, the 6-3 junior forward became a force Rossville couldn’t reckon with-whether in the paint, at the free-throw line or behind the arc.
Hamm’s seven points in the opening quarter was the key reason the Trojans led 14-13 at the first break.
When Rossville started the second quarter with an 8-0 run, it was Hamm’s old-fashioned 3-point play at the 4:55 mark that ignited a rally that carried the Trojans to a 30-26 halftime lead. Hamm accounted for 10 of Hillsboro’s 16 points during that surge.
The Trojans’ momentum continued into the third period, with Troy Frick coming off the bench for four points and Kroeker adding the next four to create an 8-2 run that gave Hillsboro its largest lead of the game, 38-28, with 3:53 left in the quarter.
But at that the point, the Trojans seemed to lose focus at both ends of the court, enabling Rossville to string together 10 consecutive points-including a 3-pointer by Cody Broughton at the buzzer that tied the game at 38 heading into the final period.
“We played pretty well until two minutes were left in the third quarter, and then it was just a total loss and it got us in a hole,” coach Darrel Knoll said.
The Bulldawgs’ momentum carried over into the final period. A 5-1 surge over the first 2:50 gave them a 43-39 lead.
Still trailing by four points at 50-46 and with less than a minute left in regulation, Hamm stepped forward again-first with a stick-back on a Kroeker miss with 57.5 seconds to go, then, following a traveling call against Rossville, with two free throws with 24.7 seconds left.
Rossville played for a last shot but missed it, sending the game into overtime.
The Bulldawgs took the opening tip and ran off time until Chris Linneman scored in the paint with 1:36 left.
Neither team scored again until Frick made one of three free throws with 58.6 seconds left to pull Hillsboro to within one, 52-51.
After Rossville made only one of four free-throw opportunities over the next 20 seconds, Adam Scheele drove the lane for Hillsboro, pulled up and hit a huge 5-footer with 22.5 seconds left to tie the game at 53.
With Rossville playing once again for a final shot, senior guard Seaver Askren was called for traveling with exactly 2.0 seconds left on the clock.
Scheele then inbounded the ball to Kroeker about 10 feet on the Rossville side of the halfcourt line. Kroeker surged forward with one dribble and then let the ball fly as as time expired.
“We actually did work on some last-second shots on Thursday,” Knoll said with a smile that acknowledged his team’s good fortune. “But what a great shot. We really needed that because it was a war of attrition out there.”
Had the game gone into a second overtime, three Trojans would have been watching from the bench with five fouls: Nate Holmes, Wade Weibert and Hamm, who finished the game with a team-high 22 points.
Kroeker finished with 11 points.
“I was really pleased with our ability to persevere today,” Knoll said. “We had times early in the game when we didn’t play very well and were able to get back into it.
“When they started spreading it out (during the overtime period), I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to force enough turnovers.” he said. “But the guys played hard and stayed after it. We forced them into some mistakes.”
“I was really happy for all the guys. We played to win and I was happy to see that.”
Knoll felt his team made significant progress during the tournament.
“I thought we played the best today of the three games,” he said. “We’re coming along and that’s encouraging.”
Rock Creek-Prior to Saturday’s wild finale, Trojan fans thought Hillsboro’s 52-51 overtime win against Rock Creek on Friday night was as exciting as they come.
And Kyle Kroeker was at the center of this one, too.
With Hillsboro trailing by six, 41-35, with less than five minutes to play, the stand-up senior scored eight of Hillsboro’s last 10 points in regulation, then tossed in all seven points in overtime to lead his team to its first victory of the season.
Kroeker finished with 26 for the game.
“It was a great win for us,” coach Darrel Knoll said. “We really needed it.”
The two teams sparred to a draw through the first half. Hillsboro enjoyed a 13-11 lead after one quarter, thanks to an 8-2 run over the last 31/2 minutes of the period.
After Hillsboro enlarged its lead to five points to start the second quarter, Rock Creek got three consecutive baskets in the paint-plus a free throw after one of them-over a one-minute span from junior guard Waylon Fleming to take a 20-18 lead.
The score was tied at 22 at intermission.
A 7-0 run midway through the third quarter gave Rock Creek its biggest lead of the night, 36-29, with 2:02 left in the period. The Mustangs still led by five at the final break, 38-33.
A basket by Hillsboro’s Macy Fadenrecht cut the lead to three points at the 6:42 mark of the final period, but a 3-pointer by Skyler Suther gave Rock Creek a 41-35 lead with 4:50 to play.
A couple of free throws by Kroeker 19 seconds later started the assault that ultimately tamed the Mustangs. He scored what turned out to be the winning point on a free throw with 9.6 seconds left in the extra period.
“I knew someone needed to step up, but not necessarily me,” said Kroeker, who played much of the second half with a sprained left wrist. “I just knew I had to play a part in it.”
Knoll said he liked the improvement he saw in his team from the disappointing opener against Abilene on Tuesday, but still saw plenty of room to grow.
“Down the stretch we had several chances to put it away and we just didn’t execute,” he said. “But we’re going to get better at that.
“I think we came with a little more tenacity tonight,” he added. “I thought Rock Creek really played a good game, too. Both of us were in a situation where we both really needed a win. They did a lot of really good things, so I was really happy with our play for the most part.”
A full report of Hillsboro’s 68-59 loss to Abilene on Tuesday appears in the Dec. 8 issue of the Free Press Extra.
Coming-The Trojans (2-1) will complete their five-game pre-Christmas road trip this week.
On Tuesday, the Trojans were scheduled to take on undefeated Wichita Collegiate (2-0). They will travel to Ellinwood (0-1) on Friday.
A report of the Collegiate came will appear in this week’s Free Press Extra, on newsstands late Thursday afternoon.