Third-quarter rally pulls boys close, but Cardinals prevail, 49-46.

An explosive third quarter pulled a struggling Hillsboro boys’ team back into contention against Cheney Monday night. But the Trojans couldn’t muster enough firepower down the stretch to pull out a victory in their season opener.

Cheney’s 49-46 home-court win gave the Cardinals a step up in pool play at the Cheney Classic.

The Cardinals, who played their season opener last Friday, played well enough to grab a 12-10 lead after one quarter.

But in the second quarter, Hillsboro managed only three field goals on 11 attempts and cashed in only six of 14 free-throws.

That was enough to enable the Cardinals to take a 32-22 lead at the break even though Cheney was shooting only 42 percent (11-26) from the floor and 47 percent from the line (9-19).

But Hillsboro came out a different team in the third quarter.

A basket by Spencer Brown at the 6:48 mark sparked a 17-2 run. Lucas Hamm capped the surge with an old-fashioned 3-point play with 2:34 left on the clock to give the Trojans a 39-34 lead.

“The third quarter was the only quarter we really ran offense,” coach Darrel Knoll said. “We cut hard, we moved the ball. We did a lot of things we need to be able to do.”

But four points by the Cardinals’ 6-5 senior Garrett Nickel closed the gap to 39-38 by the final break.

The lead went back and forth in the early minutes of the fourth quarter. Hillsboro pulled back into 46-46 tie with 1:30 to play when Tyler Kaufman stole the ball, scored the layup and then added the bonus free throw on the foul by DJ Prentice.

But Nickel stepped up again in the closing minutes of the game, scoring in the paint with 1:03 to go. After a Hillsboro turnover, Ross Scheer hit one of two free throws with 23 seconds left to give Cheney its 49-46 lead.

Kaufman misfired on a 3-point attempt with 0:05 left, and Nickel was fouled on the rebound.

But when the Cheney senior missed the front end of the one-and-one, Lucas Hamm grabbed the rebound, dribbled to the top of the far circle and launched one last 3-point prayer to tie the game. But the pool bounced off the front of the rim as the buzzer sounded.

Knoll said his team struggled to find rhythm on offense through most of the game.

“That was one of the things I was a little concerned about coming in-whether we’d be able to execute screens, and be patient enough.”

For the game, Hillsboro shot 36 percent from the floor (18-50). Knoll said impatience was a big part of the reason.

“When you’re not shooting well, you can’t win ball games that way. It took us a half to figure that out. When we got back to the fourth quarter, maybe we were forcing it again.”

Despite the opening-night challenges regarding its execution, Knoll praised his team’s heart.

“I was very proud of the guys for coming back in the second half,” he said.

“We did give ourselves a chance. From that standpoint, we’ve got to be pleased with the effort. We have to consider this a learning experience, get ourselves in better game shape, then come out and try to get a win on Friday.”

That will not be an easy order as a veteran Smoky Valley team comes to Brown Gymnasium for the second round of pool play. Tip-off is set for 7:30 p.m.

The outcome of that game will determine which plaque the Trojans will play for in Cheney on Saturday. The fifth-place game starts at 12:45 p.m., the third-place game 4:15 p.m. and the championship game at 7:45 p.m.

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