It certainly wasn’t hopeless, but if Hillcrest was going to beat Kickapoo for the Ozark Conference championship they needed a change in attitude, and fast.
Down by six with under six minutes to play, the Hornets picked up their aggressiveness - both mentally and offensively - and rallied for a 62-58 win at Kickapoo Tuesday night.
Hillcrest finishes the regular season 20-5 overall and a perfect 9-0 in league play.
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“It was going to get physical, and there were going to be no whistles,” Hillcrest coach John Schaefer said after the game. “That’s what it’s supposed to be like. I told them the tougher team is going to have a chance to win, and you’re not being that tough right now.”
Junior guard Juwan Johnson took the lead with the toughness, attacking the basket on two straight possessions to help Hillcrest rally within 52-48 with 4:20 to play. Then it was Thomas Whittaker’s turn. The senior guard - who won an OC title with Glendale last season - wrapped a pair of driving baskets around a missed Kickapoo free throw, knotting the score at 52 near the three-minute mark.
“At one point in the fourth quarter, coach told me and Juwan to just attack the basket and kick out if we had to,” Whittaker said. He and the rest of the Hornets clearly took it to heart.
“(Kickapoo) was sitting back in a zone the whole time, and we were too passive looking for 3s, because that’s what we do,” Schaefer said. “You’re dangling a piece of cheese in front of the mouse. They kept us our of rhythm shooting the ball. So late in the game I told them every time you get a gap, I want it in the lane and we’ll play out of it. That got us some open 3s and some points from Thomas.”
Kickapoo went to its senior stalwart Chris Ward. The 6-foot-5 post scored from the right baseline, then - after a pair of Whittaker free throws - drew a foul while scoring in the lane. But his game-tying free throw was off the mark and a turnover on Kickapoo’s next possession effectively swung the game to Hillcrest.
“Everybody’s going to want to talk about the end of the game, but there were some possessions in the first, second, third and earlier in the fourth quarter that were just as important,” said Kickapoo coach Dick Rippee, who noted his team came in and practiced over the weekend in preparation for the game. “It was a hard-fought contest. Hillcrest’s pretty good, and I think our guys earned a little respect tonight even though we didn’t win.”
Hillcrest actually had to rally twice in the game, falling behind 22-11 early in the second quarter.
“It took a lot of mental toughness,” said Whittaker of the rallies. “We needed to work harder on defense. We were kind of letting them have whatever they wanted in the paint. We stepped it up in the second half.”
Whittaker’s 22 led three Hornets in double figures. Johnson finished with 14 and Brady Petry came off the bench to score 12.
“It’s great, without (former HHS standout) Dorial Green-Beckham especially, because everybody underestimated us,” said Johnson. “To beat Kickapoo in the fourth quarter feels really, really great.”
Ward scored a game-high 24 for the Chiefs (19-6, 8-1), 11 of them during the fourth quarter. Jack Simpson had 11 and Tyler Bussell chipped in 10.
“I think Hillcrest’s kids been through those big games,” said Rippee. “I’m not saying that our guys haven’t, but maybe they’ve been through a few more than us. I think that showed a bit down the stretch a little bit.”
Both teams head to district play next. Hillcrest is the top seed in Class 4 District 10 and will play the winner of Salem vs. Eldon at 6 p.m. Feb. 28. Bolivar, Buffalo, or host Marshfield awaits the winner in the district championship game.
The Chiefs are seeded third in Class 5’s District 11. They face Branson at 7:45 p.m. Feb. 28, with the winner advancing to play Nixa, Ozark, or Glendale for the district crown.