When Gregg Preston put the cap back on the marker and lifted his hand in the locker room to call his team to a final chant before hitting the court there was unique electricity in the air. The Comets had their season kick-off delayed from Tuesday due to a snow storm. The extra day of practice put them in place to battle one the regions hardest working teams in the West Central Area (WCA) Knights. When the final buzzer sounded fans worked to reorient themselves, having watched a game most expect to see during March Madness. The Comets won on a buzzer beater, 56-54.
For much of the first half the Comets and Knights worked to shake off cobwebs. Hillcrest is known for stifling defense and disciplined ball movement. But after a few possessions Gregg Preston needed to call a timeout. It seemed that the Comets had the ball for 8 possessions and gave the Knights 4 easy trips to the rim on the other end after Hillcrest turned the ball over.
Settling in on offense, the Comets struggled to execute a disciplined attack at the basket. Shots weren't falling from outside like they were at the end of the 2016 run to make State. Hillcrest was 7-for-25 from behind the arc. An abysmal 28%. Working inside, Hillcrest wasn't much better. Their shooting consisted of pull-ups from the elbow and bunnies underneath. It was easy to see this was the first game of the season when Hillcrest went into the locker room down 22-25. When the night ended their stat sheets read a 19-for-56 clip for field goals. A 34% shooting night is uncommon for Hillcrest.
Hillcrest got off 81 shots throughout the night, while the Knights only cast 57. As Hillcrest stepped onto the court to start the second half there was a different air about them. Coach Preston seemed to institute a few rules for the Comets because their play was more focused, albeit the Comets looked tired.
A nip-and-tuck scoring push was underway from both Hillcrest and WCA. With both teams working to out hustle the other, back door cuts put players in awkward positions and sent the teams to the line where they worked to grab any points they could. The Knights had a rough time getting scoring going at the free throw line. Of the 26 trips Hillcrest granted WCA, the Knights only hit 10, marking a 38% mark for free throw shooting. Hillcrest was much better, where the Knights played with more disciplined footwork and only sent Hillcrest to the line 15 times, where they hit 11, going 73% in the free shots.
WCA earned their trips to the free throw line through a steady attack of the paint. A few quick adjustments by the Comets cut down on the entry passes and the Knights implemented a different strategy.
With time running down in the game Hillcrest found themselves playing from behind. Their help-side defense and execution on offense looked tentative as they reacted to the Knights passes instead of anticipating WCA's ball movement and offensive strategy.
With a little over a minute left in the game Hillcrest senior Sam Isaac found himself in the corner receiving a pass. A quick shot led to the Comets springing back on defense with the scoreboard in their favor, 52-49. WCA pulled the score even with an answer to Isaac's late game heroics, and with 40 seconds left on the clock Hillcrest began a march to end the game with a final second shot.
Hillcrest set to working the ball around the perimeter, looking to take off enough time from the clock to get a shot within 10 seconds of play. Senior Sean McGuire stepped out to take a pass, knowing his post defender wouldn't step out in coverage. As he received the ball his hands instinctively went into a shooting position as they gripped the ball, and with over 30 seconds on the clock McGuire cast a 3-pointer and stepped outside the Comets' game plan.
Fortunately, Senior Daniel Preston out hustled a Knight defender, and crashed the glass to grab the rebound. Daniel's rebound was the most significant play for the Comets that night, pulling the game back into their reach as the entry pass found Kyler Newman on the wing and reset the Comet offense.
Newman found a crease as he worked off seconds on the clock, splitting two defenders with an off-balance move, and found McGuire crashing the glass. Newman cut two defenders, bouncing a pass behind his defender, slipping the ball behind McGuire's defender as well, as Sean forced his shoulder behind that of the Knight post player to put his shoulders in line with the basket, catch the pass, and make a layup while being fouled.
With two seconds on the clock McGuire stepped to the line with a 56-54 lead. In missing his free throw McGuire watched the Knights scramble for a full-court shot, but it was in vain as Hillcrest pulled out a gutsy win.
Kyler Newman led the scoring for the night, putting together 26 points in leading the Comet attack. McGuire added 11, Preston tacked on 8. Reggie Undseth contributed 5. Sam Isaac's three pointer with a minute left were his only points on the night. Isaac's defense helped the Comets keep the game close in addition to his clutch 3-pointer. Colin Erickson added 2, and Tommy Thompson made a free-throw.
Hillcrest has two home games next week before starting the Christmas break. Monday the Comets play Pelican Rapids, and Tuesday the face Ortonville. Game time for the varsity is set at 7:15pm.