By Dana Harding (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
Springfield, Mo. — If it was allowed, Hillcrest would likely press its opponents during warm-ups.
The Hornets utilized a smothering, perimeter defense and frenzied pace to down Bolivar 68-51 Tuesday night in the team’s home opener.
For Hillcrest head coach Joel Brown, that style suits his team just fine.
“We’ve got to be the hardest-working team on the floor,” Brown said. “When that happens, good things happen for us. Flying around, working hard and causing chaos for the other team is stuff we try to do because we feel like that’s one of our advantages.”
When it doesn’t happen, of course, that strategy can backfire.
From the opening tip, Bolivar showcased its perimeter attack and found wide-open looks after weaving through the Hillcrest press.
The Liberators connected on five 3-pointers in the first quarter, alone, racing out to a 17-12 advantage after the opening frame.
Sophomore Ian Jones led the early charge with a trio of 3s to score 9 of his team-high 17 points in the quarter.
“They’re good shooters, and we knew that,” Brown said. “We didn’t have good focus transitioning from our press back to our half-court defense. We had good energy in the full court, but when we got in the half, we just got lazy in that first half, and it really hurt us because of that.”
In the second quarter, Hillcrest slowly chipped into the lead, thanks in part to Bolivar’s struggle at the free throw line. The Liberators made 3 of 10 in the quarter and 10 of 20 on the evening.
On the other end of the court, a pair of Hillcrest free throws from senior Cole Pryor with 1:26 left in the half put the Hornets up for the first time in the quarter at 26-24. They would not trail again in the ball game.
Bolivar head coach Robby Hoegh discussed the issues caused by free throw rebounds.
“I thought our kids did battle tonight,” Hoegh said. “We needed to make a few of those free throws there in that second quarter, because here’s the thing — on a missed shot, they’re just faster than we are right now and they’re either getting really good looks, or they’re missing it and throwing it up there where it’s hard to rebound against them in space, because they’re so quick to the ball.”
After taking a 30-27 lead into the break, Hillcrest ramped up the defensive pressure in the third quarter and went on an immediate 10-2 run that Brown attributed to simple focus and attention to detail.
“No huge, earth-shattering adjustments,” Brown said. “It was the focus on what they were doing to hurt us. We had to find their shooters in transition and take that away and make them put it on the ground.”
Keying the Hillcrest surge was Malik Starks’ defensive effort. After picking up two early fouls in the first half, the senior point guard continued to make things extremely difficult for Bolivar’s guards.
“In the first half, I got off to a slow start and picked up two fouls in the first quarter and another one early in the third,” Starks said. “So I had three fouls going into the second half. Coach just kept telling me ‘play hard, play hard.’ I believe I got a steal on the first possession, and I got a layup off it, and we just kept feeding off that energy.”
Starks was equally effective on the offensive end, repeatedly finding senior Tim Washington deep in the pain for easy scores. Washington finished the contest with 19 points to lead all scorers. Junior Brenden Weaver and Starks joined Washington in double figures with 12 and 11 points, respectively.
After the game, Brown was quick to praise Starks’ effort.
“I’m really happy he had that kind of performance tonight,” Brown said. “He’s got great vision, he’s got a great motor and he’s one of those big catalysts for us. When he starts rolling and he’s working hard, the rest of the team just rolls along with him.”
Despite Hillcrest’s early flurry, Bolivar would no go away quietly.
Three-straight baskets from senior Corey Spindler pulled the Liberators within six points at 42-36 with 2:38 left in the quarter; however, Bolivar would get no closer.
A 12-2 run midway through the fourth quarter all but put the game out of reach for Hillcrest.
Hoegh talked about the difficulties presented from a veteran team down the stretch.
“They were just ball-hawking us, and they’ve got some seniors that have been through the wars,” Hoegh said. “Pryor, Washington, Starks … they compete hard and went on that quick run, but I thought our kids answered and hit some shots. In the fourth, they just really started buckling down and got a few run-outs. At that point, it’s a little bit more difficult.”
Spindler finished the game with 13 points for the Liberators, and senior Kyler Murphy added 10.
“I think [Hillcrest] is a really good team,” Hoegh said. “I was more proud of our kids this game in defeat than in the games we’ve won this year. We’ve just got to continue to find our identity, and a little bit of leadership. With 26 turnovers, you try to cut that in half, maybe, and it’s going to help.”
Bolivar (2-2) travels to Strafford on Friday, Dec. 8, while Hillcrest (1-1) hosts Willard on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Varsity final: Hillcrest – 68, Bolivar – 51
Hillcrest 12 18 16 22 — 68
Bolivar 17 10 12 12 — 51
Hillcrest scoring: Tim Washington – 19, Brenden Weaver – 12, Malik Starks – 11, Cole Pryor – 9, Josh Powell – 7, Savion Hill – 4, Brandon Menifee – 4, Latterian Jarman – 2
Bolivar scoring: Ian Jones – 17, Cory Spindler – 13, Kyler Murphy – 10, Hunter Barry – 3, Jaden Spindler – 3, Kadon Kaitzer – 2, Levi Manning – 2, Mason Payne – 1
JV final: Hillcrest – 74, Bolivar – 66
(Crishawn Haggard & Jordan Ausler – 22 points)