ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
In one of the more bizarre finishes you’ll ever see to a basketball game, the Hillsboro boys let the Trojan Classic championship slip through their fingers in a 68-64 overtime loss to Riley County on Saturday night.
Unfortunately, what people will remember is The Foul that led to a heartbreaking loss rather than the courageous performance that put the Trojans in position to win.
When Kyle Kroeker made one of two free throws with 7.9 second left in the game to give Hillsboro a 58-54 lead, it appeared the Trojans had nailed down a hard-fought victory over a Falcon team that had a lot of talent but no timeouts left.
Riley’s Jordan Strom drove the length of the court and pulled up to launch a meaningless 3-pointer. In a rare lapse of judgment, Hillsboro’s Lucas Hamm attempted to defend the shot and was called for a foul with 1.6 seconds showing on the clock.
The odds of a Trojan victory, still heavily weighted in Hillsboro’s favor, increased when Strom missed the first of three free throws.
After Strom made the second free throw to cut the lead to three points, he purposefully fired a hard, low-arching toss at the hoop with a prayer that a long rebound might somehow come back to the Falcons for a final, desperate shot.
The prayer was answered. The ball hit the front of the rim, ricoheted over Strom’s head and into the hands of teammate Dane Starnes, who drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key to tie the game at the buzzer.
Strom then took over during overtime, scoring a layup on consecutive possessions that gave the rejuvenated Falcons a critical 62-58 lead with 2:22 left on the clock.
Hamm pulled his team back within two points with a pair of free throws at the 1:18 mark, but the Trojans committed two key turnovers and Strom made five of six free throws down the stretch-including the one that gave Riley a four-point lead and the victory with 11.8 seconds remaining.
Ironically, after Kroeker had made the first of those two free throws at the end of regulation, coach Darrel Knoll called a timeout specifically to remind his troops of the game situation.
“The entire timeout was about how (Riley) couldn’t stop the clock, so don’t foul,” Knoll said. “If they score, don’t even throw the ball in. For some reason we fouled. Then they had the great play that tied it up.”
The game’s ending will overshadow Hillsboro’s great play during the rest of the battle.
Clearly focused for victory, the Trojans blitzed the Falcons on both ends of the court and built a 21-11 lead after one quarter.
The score had not changed two minutes into the second period when Kroeker, who had accounted for seven points in the opening period, dove for a loose ball and slid hard into the Trojan bench, cutting a gash in his head. He was taken to the hospital for stitches and further examination.
Stunned to lose their floor leader, the Trojans battled to regroup. The Falcons capitalized on the opportunity and pulled to within 33-30 at halftime when Strom made two free throws with 2.7 seconds left.
But Hillsboro came out like gangbusters in the third period to recast a 13-point lead, 50-37. The charge was fueled by Hamm’s five consecutive points early in the period and then back-to-back 3-pointers from Adam Scheele toward the end of it.
The roar of the Trojan crowd reached fever pitch when Kroeker, head bandaged, returned to the team huddle at the final break.
A bucket by Hamm 17 seconds into the fourth quarter pushed Hillsboro back to its largest lead of the night at 52-37. Riley countered with a 6-0 run, but when Kroeker scored on a drive to the basket with 4:01 left, Hillsboro enjoyed its last double-digit lead of the night.
A 9-0 run brought the Falcons to within two points with 2:20 to play. Hillsboro had opportunities to ice the game from the free-throw line, but made only four of seven attempts in the final 1:07, include one miss on the front end of a one-and-one.
Freakish ending aside, Knoll praised his team’s performance.
“We played with a lot of adversity tonight,” he said. “We had the game going well and then Kyle got the head injury. It took us a while to recover from that.
“I was very pleased with the way we played in the second half up until the very end. It’s just a tough one to lose.”
A key reason for Hillsboro’s success was unexpected contributions from several players. Heading the list were light-scoring starters Macy Fadenrecht and Scheele, who finished with season-high 15 and 10 points, respectively.
For the game, Hillsboro shot 49 percent from the field (21-43) and 72 percent from the line (18-25) while Riley made 47 percent (22-47) from the floor and 75 percent (21-28) from the line.
Strom and Zack Sullivan each scored 16 points for Riley County (10-3), but Justin Glenn led the Falcons with 17.
For Hillsboro, Fadenrecht tied Hamm for team scoring honors while Kroeker finished with 11 points.
“We wouldn’t have been in the game without Lucas,” Knoll said of his junior standout. “He had a great game on the boards (10 rebounds) and made some big plays for us.
“We win as a team and we lose as a team. We all had things we could have done a little better.
“I’m very proud with how hard the guys played tonight against a very good Riley County team,” Knoll added. “You’ve got to give them credit for making some plays down the stretch. We had the game won, but somehow let it slip away from us.
“It was unfortunate at the end. But hopefully we’ll learn from it and take from this game that we can play with anybody in the state and not put our heads down and say, ‘Oh, we lost the game.'”
Belleville-Hillsboro earned a spot in the championship game with a resounding 61-40 win over Belleville in Friday’s semifinals.
Riding the broad shoulders of post player Wade Weibert, Hillsboro led 10-6 after one quarter and 26-14 at halftime. Weibert, who had six points in the first quarter and 13 points by intermission, dominated the Buffaloes in the paint.
“They just didn’t have a body to put on him,” coach Darrel Knoll said. “He’s just so solid, they had a hard time getting around him.”
In the third quarter Kyle Kroeker picked up the scoring mantle with nine points on back-to-back 3-pointers midway through the period and a traditional 3-point play with 4.1 seconds left in the period.
Five points from Peter Fast during a 35-second stretch late in the period gave Hillsboro a 44-26 lead on the way to the 49-31 margin at the final break.
Another basket by Fast to start the fourth quarter and two baskets by Lucas Hamm comprised a 6-0 run that gave Hillsboro its largest lead of the night at 55-31 two minutes into period.
Weibert finished as the high-point man for Hillsboro with 15 points on 6-for-6 shooting from the floor and 3-for-5 accuracy from the free-throw line.
Hamm added 15 points and Kroeker 11 for the Trojans, who shot a blistering 69 percent (24-35) from the field compared to 27 percent (13-49) for Belleville.
On the down side, Hillsboro finished with 22 turnovers, including six in the early minutes.
“I thought the first part of the game we were a little jittery, offensively especially,” Knolls said. “Defensively, we kept getting stops. I thought we rebounded really well for the most part.”
“At halftime we just talked about being confident in ourselves and playing to win, and I thought we did that in the second half. So I was very pleased with the effort.”
Coming-Hillsboro will take a 9-3 record to Marion when it returns to the court on Friday for a league contest against the Warriors.