After a postseason full of comeback victories by the Lady Hiltoppers, the Hillsboro girls basketball team saw the other side of the coin in the opening game of the IHSA Class 2A State Tournament at Redbird Arena in Normal on Friday, Feb. 22.
Playing the most storied girls basketball program in the history of the IHSA, the Lady Hiltoppers had Chicago Marshall on the ropes for the better part of the game before the Commandoes rallied for a 50-41 victory.
"I told them that they're not the kind of program that they are because they give up whenever they get down ten," said Hillsboro Coach Bret Tuetken, whose team led 24-14 at the half. " I said that we have to be ready for the pressure. We knew it was going to come, so we just had to withstand it. They speed you up. They make your shots a little bit quicker and obviously they force you into some turnovers too."
Tuetken said that turnovers were the difference from the first half to the second as Hillsboro committed 13 in the final two quarters, compared to just five in the first half.
"Even if you miss a shot, you're able to get back on defense, but when you turn the ball over, it's hard to get back against a team that quick," Tuetken said.
The Toppers came out strong against the defending Class 2A champions, with Sammi Matoush hitting a three and Claire Tester knocking one down from mid-range to make it 5-0. Hillsboro would try to slow the pace throughout the game and while they didn't score again for three and a half minutes, Marshall didn't set the nets on fire either.
" I thought the first half pace of the game was definitely favoring us. I thought we played exactly the style we wanted to," Tuetken said. "In the second half they got us to speed up a little bit more. We like to run, but against them we didn't want to get into a run-and-gun type game, and I thought they got us into that a little bit."
Hillsboro continued to hold the lead throughout the first quarter, with Marshall coming as close as one after back-to-back baskets by Dashiera Butts to make it 5-4.
Hillsboro would close the quarter the way they started it though, with a strong 6-1 run after a two from Jade Scroggins, a three from Matoush and a free throw by Emily Reynolds.
As Matoush's halfcourt shot grazed off the front of the rim as the horn sounded, the Toppers held an 11-5 lead over the 28-time state qualifier.
The second quarter started in similar fashion to the first, with Matoush scoring early, followed by back-to-back baskets by Marshall that cut the lead to 13-10. Hillsboro would answer though, with Nikya Harston and Kylie Meier hitting from two and Jade Scroggins adding a three to make it 20-10 midway through the quarter.
The two teams would trade points in the final three minutes of the quarter, with Matoush hitting a pair of free throws and a putback off an offensive rebound to make it 24-14 at the break.
Despite the solid Hillsboro lead, few in the building thought that the Commandoes wouldn't come out strong in the second half.
"Absolutely," Marshall Coach Dorothy Gaters said with a smile when asked if she read her team the riot act at halftime. "Why do you come to the state tournament and only score 14 points in the first two quarters. Sometimes that's how you bring them back to reality. Like Bobby Knight."
Marshall would not lead in the third quarter, but outscored Hillsboro 15-8 and chipped away at the margin throughout the quarter, despite a knee injury to leading scorer Brandi Hudson. Once the eight minutes were up, Hillsboro's lead had shrunk to 32-29, with one notable name missing from the scoring line in the third.
After she scored 12 points in the first half, the Commandoes honed in on Matoush, feeding in a barrage of fresh defenders to try to slow the all-stater.
"She's a great player and we knew that," Gaters said. "We had to switch off in the second half so she would not get comfortable and so we wouldn't put our kids in peril with foul trouble."
The plan definitely helped as Matoush was held to four points, all of which came in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter.
"I felt like when one of their girls got tired, they subbed her out and immediately put in a fresh body," Matoush said. "Later in the game that started to wear on me a little bit."
Between locking down Matoush and a high pressure defense that forced Hillsboro's shooters to hurry their outside shots, the Commandoes began to make their move in the fourth quarter.
They would cut the lead to one, 32-31 on the opening possession of the final frame, but Aubry Rupert answered with a three that boosted the lead back to four points. Marshall answered back with a two from Hudson at the 5:55 mark, then cut the lead to one again with a free throw by Roquesna Sims in their next possession.
With 4:50 showing on the clock, Butts scored her 17th point of the game, giving Marshall their first lead of the contest, more than 27 minutes after the opening tip.
The lead would be short lived as Rupert knocked down a mid-range jumper to make it 37-36 with 4:20 to play. Hillsboro would still have the lead two minutes later as both teams turned the ball over.
With Butts on the bench after fouling out with 2:51 to play and Hudson still hobbled by the knee injury, Hillsboro hoped to stay out in front. But a three from Niyah Zamudio turned the tide for the Commandoes, giving them a 39-37 lead with 2:13 to play.
After a missed three by the Toppers, Roquesna Sims hit the front end of two free throws, with Hudson grabbing the rebound and putting back a shot for another three points in Marshall's favor.
Matoush would hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 42-39, but Hudson would score four straight points to give Marshall a seven point lead with 44 seconds to play.
After a Hillsboro miss and a missed free throw on the Marshall end, Matoush scored again to make it 46-41, but the Commandoes would hit four consecutive free throws in the final ten seconds to sew up the victory.
Matoush would lead Hillsboro with 16 points, while Claire Tester added six and Aubry Rupert and Jade Scroggins had five each. Marshall would be led by Butts with 17, while Sims (12), Hudson (11) and Zamudio (10) also reached double figures.
"They're a very good team and a very good shooting team. We don't play a lot of teams who have good shooters, so that is somewhat of an adjustment," Coach Gaters said of Hillsboro after the game. "If it's a track meet, advantage Marshall, but they (Hillsboro) played hard and they did get back on defense. We had a couple breaks in the fourth quarter with some steals and breakaway baskets, so that kind of broke the game open for us."
The Toppers can take solace in the fact that they weren't the only ones to see their state title hopes dashed by a Commando comeback. In the championship game the next night, Marshall outscored Teutopolis 17-5 to erase a 39-30 deficit after three quarters and win their tenth state title.
While Marshall's victory grabbed the final headline, it wasn't necessarily the most talked about moment of Friday's semifinal. A sea of orange filled up the entire quarter of Redbird Arena set aside for Hillsboro fans, providing a special moment for the players.
"I was kind of confused at first," senior Kylie Meier said. "I saw the left side of the floor first and no one was on that side. Then I saw our crowd."
"I think it's amazing that our community is 100 percent behind us," Sammi Matoush said. "It's just an awesome feeling knowing that my classmates were there, my teachers were there, even my neighbors were there."
"It definitely made me pumped up and so happy," said Claire Tester. "I looked at our section and the Marshall section and I was like, 'Wow, our fans really support us.'"
"I loved running out there and seeing the Hillsboro crowd. Even when we were walking down the hallways and couldn't see, the people leading us said that our community did amazing," Jade Scroggins said. "We definitely feel blessed because of it."
The crowd would be back in full force the next night as well, as Hillsboro played St. Joseph-Ogden for third place in Class 2A.
February 22 at Normal
Class 2A State Tournament
Semifinal at Redbird Arena
Hillsboro 11 13 8 9 41
Chi. Marshall 5 9 15 21 50
Hillsboro (41) - Sammi Matoush 16, Claire Tester 6, Aubry Rupert 5, Jade Scroggins 5, Emily Reynolds 3, Kylie Meier 2, Maci Blankenship 2, Nikya Harston 2. Totals: 16-43 5-6 41.
Chicago Marshall (50) - Dashiera Butts 17, Roquesna Sims 12, Brandi Hudson 11, Niyah Zamudio 10. Totals: 19-49 10-16 50.
Three-point field goals: Hillsboro 4-22 (Matoush 2, Rupert 1, Scroggins 1); Chicago Marshall 2-11 (Zamudio 2).
Rebounds: Hillsboro 24; Chicago Marshall 39. Turnovers: Hillsboro 18; Chicago Marshall 19. Steals: Hillsboro 8; Chicago Marshall 8.
Records: Hillsboro (29-6); Marshall (26-8).