Girls basketball in the South Central Conference has been a grind this year, so it was only appropriate that when Hillsboro and Carlinville met up in the regional semifinal on Thursday, Feb. 13, that game would follow suit.
In a game that was single digits from start to finish, the host Lady Cavaliers avenged one of their three losses in the regular season and beat Hillsboro 42-39 to advance to the regional championship.
“There were good games in the South Central every night and you know when they match up, it’s going to be tight, it’s going to be well played and it’s going to be tough,” Hillsboro Coach Bret Tuetken said after the game. “If we played again tomorrow night, we might get them by three.”
The Toppers would take the first lead of the game with a Nikya Harston basket at the 6:15 mark, but turnovers plagued both teams as each had two possessions that ended in miscues before Harston’s bucket.
Carlinville would be the first to take advantage of those turnovers though, as they built up a six point lead on a three rattled in by Jill Stayton and a two by Haley Wills that made it 11-5 with 2:46 to play.
Hillsboro would score the final four points of the quarter though, getting a putback from Harston on an offensive rebound and two free throws by Vanessa Compton to make it 11-9 after one.
Scoring was hard to come by in the first few minutes of the second quarter, but the Cavaliers would get on track with a pair of threes by Stayton, which gave her team a 19-11 lead, the biggest of the game.
After being shut down from outside the arc in the first quarter, Hillsboro found their range in the final moments of the second to cut into the Carlinville lead and to go up by one with 30 seconds left.
After a mid-range jumper and free throw by Emily Reynolds, Haley Major made it 19-17 with Hillsboro’s first three of the game. Less than a minute later, Layne Rupert added a three of her own as the Toppers took a 20-19 advantage, their first lead since the midway point of the first.
Carlinville would have a chance to tie or take the lead with a free throw in the final seconds, but came up empty and Hillsboro led by one at the half.
The pattern of the first half continued in the second as Carlinville would begin to pull away, only to have Hillsboro reel them back in. The Cavies led by five at the midway point of the third quarter after an 8-2 run, but a layup by Claire Tester and two free throws by Nikya Harston erased much of that deficit.
The Toppers would tie the game late in the third quarter after a steal and basket by Harston and a two from Rupert, but Corin Stewart knocked down a heavily contested three in the final seconds to give Carlinville a 33-30 lead going into the fourth.
Again, the Cavies would lead by as many as five early, only to have Hillsboro come back, with Rupert tying the game at 37-37 with 5:11 to go on her second three of the game.
The two teams would trade free throws before Stayton gave her team a 40-38 lead on a basket, which turned out to be the difference maker, with 2:20 to play.
Hillsboro would shave a point off the margin with a Claire Tester free throw, and had chances to take the lead, but were unable to convert down low.
“We had a couple shots late and just couldn’t get a layup to drop,” Coach Tuetken said. “We had our chances but it was just a really good, well played game by both sides and we didn’t pull it out.”
Stewart would snare a pass late in the fourth and hit two free throws after she was fouled to give Carlinville a three-point lead. That would be enough to hold off the Toppers, who finish the season 18-13.
“We turned the ball over too much. That was probably the big thing,” said Coach Tuetken, whose club committed 19 turnovers in the loss. “Carlinville plays great defense and you have to give them credit.”
The Cavies would continue that defensive prowess the following night as they defeated Pittsfield 52-46 to score their first regional title since 2010.
Nikya Harston would lead Hillsboro on Thursday with 12 points and 11 rebounds, notching her 17th double-double of the season, while Claire Tester and Layne Rupert added eight points each. Haley Major and Vanessa Compton finished with three and two points respectively, while Emily Reynolds and Shelby Houchlei wrapped up their high school basketball careers with four and two.
“It’s always sad whenever the seniors play their last game. Shelby came back out after not playing last year and she was such a defensive presence for us and took care of the ball. We were really glad to have her back,” Coach Tuetken said of his seniors. “Emily, for three years, has played so many roles for us. She’s been a post, she’s been a guard, she’s been a wing. She’s just always done what we’ve asked her to do and that’s a great team player. We’ll miss her.”
While Reynolds and Houchlei will be moving on, Hillsboro should bring back a solid nucleus from this year’s team, which went 18-13 despite losing 80 percent of their scoring from last year’s team that finished fourth at state.
If this year’s squad can learn from the challenges of the 2019-20 campaign, a fourth regional title and 20 win season in six years might be in the cards for the Lady Hiltoppers.
Feb. 13 at Carlinville
Class 2A Carlinville Regional
Carlinville 11 8 14 9 42
Hillsboro 9 11 10 9 39
Carlinville (42) - Jill Stayton 12, Corin Stewart 10, Gracie Reels 8, Elise Baker 6, Haley Wills 4, Sarah Deneve 2. Totals: 15 7-17 42.
Hillsboro (39) - Nikya Harston 12, Layne Rupert 8, Claire Tester 8, Emily Reynolds 4, Haley Major 3, Shelby Houchlei 2, Vanessa Compton 2. Totals: 12-39 12-21 39.
Three-point field goals: Carlinville 5 (Stayton 3, Stewart 1, Reels 1); Hillsboro 3-10 (Rupert 2, Major 1).
Records: Hillsboro (18-13); Carlinville (29-3).