By John Miller
Springfield, MO – With the atmosphere amped up a notch or two and the emotions high, Hillcrest gave the No. 2-ranked team in Class 5 a battle in more ways than one.
On Senior Night at Kickapoo, the Hornets’ physical defense got Kickapoo out of sync before the Chiefs recalibrated and ran away with a 79-62 win on Tuesday night.
Sophomore Tyem Freeman had 29 points to lead the Hornets, including a pair of high-flying dunks. Cameron Davis scored 29 for Kickapoo, with teammates Donyae McCaskill and Jared Ridder each adding 18 points apiece. Ridder had 14 rebounds.
Physical defense was the game plan on Tuesday for Hillcrest, and it worked. They got into Kickapoo—specifically, Kickapoo’s two D-I commits Davis and Ridder—, nudging and bumping them at every turn. From the opening tipoff, they refused to let Kickapoo set the tone.
“When (you’re playing against) players that good, you’ve got to do something different than what everybody else does,” Hillcrest coach Joel Brown said. “We had some things that we were trying to take away from them, but yes, absolutely, trying to be physical with them was part of our game plan tonight.”
The Hornets (18-7, 6-3 Ozark Conference) pressured Ridder, signed to play at Xavier next year, often bumping him before he caught, not allowing him to get comfortable offensively. He took only six shots in the first-half and had six points at halftime.
The physical nature of the game allowed emotions to run high on the floor. Players barked at officials and sometimes at each other. Two technical fouls were handed out on Tuesday, one to each team.
“You learn a lot about your players and yourselves when things don’t go the way you want them to go,” Kickapoo coach Dick Rippee said. “You get a little frustrated and you start talking to an official or talking back to a coach or talking to a teammate. Our guys gotta do a better job of just manning up and playing and growing up.
“… When you have a team of seven seniors … and you get to this time of the year, you expect your team to be mentally prepared. For the most part, our guys have done a great job of that. I thought maybe tonight, some of the distractions with Senior Night festivities got to them a little bit.”
Kickapoo (20-4, 9-0 OC) built a 29-15 lead with three minutes left in the first half before Freeman took over. The sophomore went on a personal 11-0 run, converting three “and-1” opportunities, helping his team pull within 31-26 by halftime.
“He’s a special kid,” Brown said. “He’s learning continually how to keep getting better, what he’s good at, what he needs to work on. He sets that tone of being a relentless worker.”
Freeman embraced the opportunity to shine against top-level competition in an intense atmosphere.
“In this environment … you just gotta do something special,” he said.
After halftime, Kickapoo got into its motion offense, freeing up opportunities for its players to make plays.
“We went to motion and got better spacing,” Rippee said. “I thought we made some extra passes and had some guys making some cuts. I thought that really helped get a little separation. We tried to get some of our shooters coming off screens. I thought that helped us a lot.”
Davis, a US Naval Academy commit, scored 10 points in the quarter, helping the Chiefs begin to pull away. He got to the basket on several occasions and was able to finish at the rim.
“I’ve always been told that if somebody is pressuring you, you should attack and make plays,” Davis said.
Kickapoo’s win clinched an Ozark Conference championship for the Chiefs, the program’s fourth-straight and 15th since the 2000-01 season.
“That’s always one of our goals going into the year,” Davis said. “We know how hard it is to go 9-0 in the Ozark Conference. We had a chip on our shoulder this year. Glendale was getting a bunch of attention. Hillcrest was getting a bunch of attention. We just wanted to go out there, play our hardest, do our best, and let the chips fall where they may.”
Prior to the game, Kickapoo honored its seven seniors: Davis, Ridder, Travis Vokolek, Jackson Auer, Isaac Blakeslee, Corey Dye, and Mitch Closser.
Hillcrest 14 12 13 23 62
Kickapoo 17 14 22 26 79
Hillcrest: Powell 4, Freeman 29, Clark 9, Pryor 11, Terry 2, Washington 7
Kickapoo: McCaskill 18, Vokolek 4, Davis 29, Blakeslee 2, Ridder 18, Closser 8