By Denise Tucker
Pleasant Hope, Mo. — When the game is on the line, you want the ball in the hands of your leader.
And for the Pleasant Hope Pirates, those hands belong to senior guard Jordan Hillenburg.
With 12.2 seconds remaining and a 61-60 lead, Hillenburg hit 3-of-4 free throws to put the game out of reach as the Pirates held off the Buffalo Bison, 64-60 in the season opener for both teams Tuesday night.
“You always feel confident when your best player is at the line and that’s what we have,” first-year head coach Eric Sechler said of his senior. “So, we were going to win or lose by Jordan, and I’m fine with having that on a daily basis.”
Hillenburg, who scored a game-high 40 points, including 11 of the Pirates’ 13 fourth-quarter points, never came out of the game – and he had prepared himself for such a situation.
“He’s an amazing leader,” Sechler said. “He dedicated himself to doing cross country, out of the blue, to build up his endurance and to get ready for this season, so he could do exactly that. So, he knew what was expected of him coming in and he prepared for it all off-season.”
Heading into the fourth quarter, the game didn’t look like it would come down to those free throws. Pleasant Hope (1-0) held a 51-37 lead before Buffalo (0-1) began to chip away.
The Bison got the Pirates’ lead under double-digits when Travis Clemmons scored on a baseline drive and was fouled. He made the free throw to make the score 54-47 with 5:08 remaining. Hillenburg answered with a baseline drive of his own to put the Pirates back up 56-47, but Kyle Cooley, who led Buffalo with 16 points, hit a 3-pointer to pull the Bison as close as they had been since early in the third quarter (56-50).
The Bison didn’t go away and eventually tied it at 57 on a 3 by Clemmons with 1:50 left in the game. A layup from the left side by senior Hayden Aleshire gave the Pirates a 59-57 lead, but they needed their leader to ice the game at the end.
“We had a lot of good moments tonight, and I think a lot of not-so-good ones,” Hillenburg said. “We’re not a very deep team off the bench, so our starting five really has to step up more, but they did pretty good. For a lot of them, this is their first year having varsity minutes, so there is a lot of room to improve. It’s going to be my job to lead them and I’m just trying to make (us) the best team that we can be.”
Buffalo, a team that struggled to a 1-23 record last season, showed a lot of fight in its comeback, outscoring Pleasant Hope 23-13 in the final quarter.
“Where it started to turn around is we just started taking care of the ball and doing what we are supposed to do,” said first-year coach and 2009 Buffalo High School graduate Kyle Gawlowski. “It was kind of a gut-check. I told the kids, ‘we’re down 14, we’ve got nothing to lose, either give me your all or we’re going to lose by 20,’ and the kids responded well.”
Gawlowski is confident Tuesday night’s performance is a sign of good things to come.
“I know I have guys who won’t give up,” Gawlowski said. “That’s the thing I care about the most. And then we learned a lot about what we still need to work on. Whether we had won or lost, we know what we have to work on, and whether we won or lost, we know we have guys who won’t give up.”
PLEASANT HOPE 64, BUFFALO 60
BUFFALO (0-1) – 16-13-8-23—60
PLEASANT HOPE (1-0) – 17-13-21-13—64
BUFFALO (0-1) – Kyle Cooley 16, Noah Gentry 10, Ben Smith 9, James Smith 8, Travis Clemmons 7, Layton Moody 5, Hayden Miller 4, Gage Obernuefemann 1.
PLEASANT HOPE (1-0) – Jordan Hillenburg 40, Michael Werland 11, Peyton Johnson 4, Hayden Aleshire 4, Teagen Keck 3, Calvin Mitchell 2.
Buffalo B 56, Pleasant Hope B 34
Up next: Pleasant Hope vs. Weaubleau at Lockwood Tournament; Buffalo vs. Cassville at Marionville Tournament