By Kary Booher
Springfield, MO – When sophomore sensation Tyem Freeman got whistled for his second foul only 78 seconds into the game – and headed to the bench – the Hillcrest Hornets knew they’d have to soldier on.
Well, Hezekiah Duke and the Hornets likely earned a stripe, so to speak, against the Waynesville Tigers.
Duke and Cole Pryor combined for 14 first-half points, the defense buckled down and Freeman joined the cause in full after halftime beginning with a monster dunk in Hillcrest’s 53-40 Ozark Conference victory Friday night at Hillcrest High School. Freeman finished with 13 points.
“We played our game,” said Duke, who finished with 16 points, eight in each half. “We had a lot of confidence that we could be more physical. Waynesville is a scrappy team, and we had to out-scrappy them. We played with a lot of heart.”
Freeman is building a reputation as one of the better players in the city, partly the result of a 38-point game earlier this season. He’s got the smooth shooting touch and a nose for the rim, too.
So when he sat with two fouls at the 6:22 mark of the first quarter, the Hornets dug in. Pryor hit a pair of 3-pointers, Duke ended up making half of his six field-goal attempts and Hillcrest managed to take a 27-21 lead into halftime thanks to press defense.
Freeman played parts of the second quarter but guarded against a third foul.
“It was just bad defense,” Freeman said of his fouls. “I wasn’t communicating. I didn’t really close out.”
For a team that is now 8-3, winning a half without Freeman bodes well for the grind ahead. Weeks ago, the Hornets already switched to a press defense, and now they’re showing mental toughness with it.
The momentum spilled over into the third quarter when Waynesville closed within 27-24 on Ben Maxwell’s 3-pointer to open the quarter.
However, Freeman threw down a two-handed, sideways dunk – he bulled in from the right elbow of the lane – that kick-started a stretch in which Hillcrest eventually built a 39-29 advantage with 2:10 left in the third quarter. Duke hit a buck, Josh Powell sank a free throw, Freeman got another bucket and then Malik Starks hit a 3 during the stretch.
“We showed a lot of resilience,” Hillcrest coach Joel Brown said. “That was the first time where we had a situation where we didn’t have Tyem in for a whole half, except for a two-minute breather in the second quarter. It was good to see the guys not freak out and wilt. They trusted each other and what we’re trying to do, and just kept it flowing.”
Duke should be a key for Hillcrest, given he is a senior who gained varsity experience in the second half of last season.
“The best thing about him is he’s open to learning. He’s not a kid who believes he knows it all,” Brown said. “He’s coming along as a leader. He’s got a good shot. He just needs more confidence in shooting it.”
It was another tough night for Waynesville, which fell behind by 16 points at one point and showed their inexperience.
Despite Tahja Stewart’s 15 points and Tavan Diplama’s 11, the Tigers couldn’t get open shots to fall and couldn’t get over the hump when they did close within striking distance. It makes it especially difficult for a team lacking a true center.
“That was good for us. I think our guys understand now we have to pick it up in practice,” Waynesville coach Chris Pilz said. “Tip your hat to (the Hornets). I think they really harassed us.”
Hillcrest 53, Waynesville 40
Waynesville 12 9 10 9 – 40
Hillcrest 17 10 16 10 – 53
Waynesville: Tahja Stewart 15, Tavan Diplama 11, David Adams 5, Caleb Barnes 3, Eric Morriss 3, James Simmons 2, Shaq Fregiste 1.
Hillcrest: Hezekiah Duke 16, Tyem Freeman 13, Josh Powell 7, Cole Pryor 6, Tim Washington 6, Brenden Weaver 2, Malik Starks 3