Stephanie Sanders stepped to the line during two crucial moments Saturday in the Hillsboro High School girls’ basketball team’s game against Atchison County. She knocked down a free throw to tie the game at 32 late in the fourth quarter and she hit a free throw to ice the game for the 42-38 final.
She said it was a nerve-wracking experience, something she is not accustomed to. If she had the choice, she would have preferred to be far away from the free-throw line in those situations. However, she knocked down those shots because she was thinking about her teammates, the girls she had grown with and battled with for four years.
“I had to do it for them,” she said. “I didn’t think of myself at all.”
It was the same reason Sanders hit the floor diving for loose balls on at least three separate occasions Saturday and why she doggedly drove into the teeth of Atchison’s defensive front, knowing her shot could be blocked.
It was the same reason Krista Reimer and Courtney Weber boxed out hard to keep the Tigers’ 6-footers off the boards. It was the same reason why Amy Bartel used every ounce of her energy to track down wayward rebounds or stick a hand in the way of a pass for a steal.
In every huddle, a different Hillsboro senior would say that this was this group’s last chance to play together for Hillsboro and that they should go out with a win.
“Only two teams in 3A get to end the season with a win,” head coach Nathan Hiebert said. “I’m incredibly proud of the way they fought back.”
Many of those seniors made key contributions on Saturday, contributions that may have been outside of their comfort zone. Callie Serene hit a 3-pointer from the corner to put Hillsboro up, 37-36, with 1:40 left in the game, it was Hillsboro’s first lead since the second quarter. Serene was the leading scorer for Hillsboro with 17 points. She also hit jump shots that shrank the Atchison County lead to 3 and 1 before taking the lead.
Three plays before taking the lead, Serene blocked a shot to halt an Atchison possession.
Weber is a player who does the dirty work on both ends of the floor. She does not secure as many rebounds as her teammates because she boxes out her opponents so thoroughly. She is more apt to let the ball sail out of bounds for a change of possession than pick it up for a board. As a forward, she is also hesitant to take shots from the outside.
“She’s a 5-6 forward,” Hiebert said. “Somebody forgot to tell her to not push post players around.”
She did not hesitate Saturday when a loose ball rolled her way at the end of the third quarter and she drilled a long 2-pointer to beat the buzzer and narrow the Atchison lead to 4, 28-24.
The clutch abilities showed by Sanders, Serene, and Weber illustrated the Trojans’ resolve throughout the season. The third-place victory Saturday was a microcosm for the Trojans’ season.
“It was a matter of not wanting to lose,” Hiebert said.
As they did against Burlington on Friday, Hillsboro began the game hot, jumping out to a 9-2 lead with 5 minutes, 6 seconds remaining in the first quarter. However, the Tigers closed the gap to 11-8 at the end of the first. To start the second, Atchison County went on a 9-0 run, dominating the paint by collecting multiple offensive rebounds and earning trips to the free-throw line.
Things looked bleak for Hillsboro, but they had been bleaker. Hillsboro’s chances to return to state dipped when Tena Loewen went down with an injury. Even the Trojans may have doubted after losing to Sterling Feb. 7 at home after defeating the Black Bears in a landslide Dec. 16 on the road.
“They overcame a lot of adversity,” Hiebert said.
However, Hillsboro banded together. Sophomore Addie Lackey embraced the role of playmaker and developed a chemistry with Reimer. Lackey scored 11 points on Saturday and grabbed the most rebounds for Hillsboro, 5.
Lackey is ahead of schedule in her progression as a player and looks to be a component of future state runs for Hillsboro.
“Addie is probably the best player I’ve ever played with,” Sanders said.
On Saturday, the Trojans were able to chip away at Atchison County’s leads before finally overtaking them in the fourth quarter.
In another glimpse of the abilities of a young Trojan, sophomore Danae Bina’s on-ball defense was a key the comeback in the fourth quarter Saturday. Bina forced three turnovers in the second half.
However, Saturday was about the Trojan seniors. The class has made four consecutive trips to state and finished with two consecutive state placements. They will have a new trophy to put in the case outside of the gym, something to remember them by, Hiebert said.
“We played together to reach a goal,” Sanders said. “We won a lot because we worked together so well.”
The Trojans improbable run for a state championship was ended Friday in a 52-38 defeat to Burlington in the semifinals in Hutchinson.
The Trojans started the game red hot. Serene knocked down two 3-pointers to put Hillsboro up 8-2 with 3 minutes, 30 seconds left in the first. As they would all game, Burlington answered the Hillsboro run with an 8-1 scoring flurry led by two steals, one converted into a quick layup off a press, by Madison Stewart to give the Wildcats a 10-9 lead.
“We did some good things early on,” Hiebert said. “We were really sharp off of screens.”
A scoring barrage by Lackey to start the second, including a layup, midrange jumper, and a 3-pointer, helped put the Trojans up 18-16 at halftime.
Burlington regained the lead in the third quarter. A 3-pointer by Sydney Ledom put the Wildcats up 31-25. Although Weber was able to knock down one of her two 3-pointers of the contest to beat the buzzer to end the third quarter, the Trojans were down, 35-31.
Hillsboro would knock at the door of the lead when Maci Schlehuber canned a three with 5 minutes left in the third, but Burlington responded going on an 8-0 run, propelled by an old-fashioned 3-point play by Jackie O’Connor. With a 10-point lead, 45-35, the Wildcats ground down the clock scoring the rest of their points at the free-throw line. The Trojans would not fare as well at the line. In three trips in the final 3:45 of game play, Lackey came up empty from the stripe.
As much as the Wildcats scored at opportune times, it was Burlington’s defense that won the game. Burlington forced Hillsboro into 11 turnovers, collected 6 steals, and blocked 4 shots. While Lackey used her myriad of offensive moves to pick up 12 points, front-court partner Reimer was held largely in check, scoring 7 points.
“A couple of possession in a row we dribbled way too much,” Hiebert said. “That’s what Burlington does. They get you excited and off your game.”
One Trojan who had no problems on either end of the court was Serene. Serene hit five 3-pointers for 15 points. More impressively she allowed Stewart, Burlington’s best player, to score just 6 points. The defensive assignment involved battling Stewart inside but also challenging her on the perimeter.
The Trojans also won the rebound battle in the contest, 17-14. Sanders and Lackey tied for team highs with 5 boards apiece.
Team members knew it was not going to be an easy road on the quest for a state title, but Caney Valley helped illustrate the point Thursday in Hutchinson.
The Trojans won the game, 48-39, but Hillsboro only led by 4 points after three quarters.
The Trojans faced a well-coached battle-hardened team in the first round. Caney Valley ran a full-court man-to-man press against the Trojans most of the game. While the Trojans employed the same strategy, they used eight players while Caney Valley used six. Bethany Barlow, Makenzie Vining, and Kayla Clapp played all 32 minutes.
Like Moundridge and Riley County, Caney Valley played aggressive man-to-man defense in the half court, a tactic most teams are afraid to employ against the Trojans.
On top of that, Caney Valley employed a strategy which stunted the Hillsboro offense. Lackey picked up two fouls in the first quarter.
“Those first two fouls were on her,” Hiebert said. “She was trying to make the big play, and she got steal happy.”
After Lackey sat out the second half of the first quarter, Caney Valley, utilizing bruising post player Clapp, intentionally attacked Lackey on offense. Lackey picked up her third foul in the final two minutes of the second quarter and her fourth foul in the first two minutes of the third quarter. Both fouls were instigated by drives by Clapp.
The effect on the Trojans was felt in transition. Lackey often leads the break for the Trojans, securing a rebound, then quickly leading a cast of quicksilver guards up court, and looking for a cutter to the basket.
Hillsboro scored its first transition basket, an and-1 layup by Bina assisted by Lackey in the first minute of the third quarter. Lackey later created three more transition opportunities in the fourth quarter, two to Bina and one to Reimer, to tie for the team lead in assists with 3. However, Lackey, who averages nearly 10 points a game, scored 4 points, and collected 3 rebounds.
Lackey was not alone in falling under the foul trap of Clapp. Reimer ended the game with four fouls. Clapp scored 17 points for Caney Valley and led all scorers.
“They scored most of their points inside,” Hiebert said.
With Lackey fouling out early in the fourth, other Trojans had to step up.
Even without her frontcourt battery mate, Reimer tied for the team high in points with 15 and led the Trojans in rebounds with 9, 3 offensive. Reimer scored 9 of her points in the fourth quarter, after being able to establish position on Clapp, who also finished the game with four fouls.
“They doubled down on me,” Reimer said of Caney Valley’s post defense. “It opened up great opportunities from the outside.”
Also relentlessly attacking the basket was Bina who scored 15 points. She converted two traditional 3-point plays, and converted both free throws in trips to the line at the end of the game.
A 26-22 lead after three quarters grew to the final of 48-39 with Hillsboro hitting 19 free throws in the game.