Fans could read Coach Gregg Preston's face as he walked into the Comet huddle after one minute of play Saturday night. The scoreboard showed Underwood with 9 hard earned points. Hillcrest didn't have any. With the 9 point deficit staring at the Comets, Coach Gregg Preston appeared to ask his team what they were planning do now. This style of coaching has his Comets undefeated and a favorite to win State after their 72-55 victory following Preston's huddle antics.
Underwood showed up to Concordia with a lot to play for. The Rocket seniors are known for their athleticism, having earned state berths for football in recent years. Their final push together was in meeting the undefeated Comets in their plight for a state championship. With Underwood shooting 57% on the night, it was clear the Rockets were not going to roll over for Hillcrest.
Underwood forced some faltering steps for the Comets in their march to Williams Arena. Underwood coach Jesse Arbuckle played for Gregg Preston on a team that earned second place in Williams Arena. Now facing Preston, Arbuckle put together a game plan that forced fans for Hillcrest to wrench their shirts throughout the first half.
Underwood worked to play up mismatches on the court, knowing the Comets were likely to force a few of their own. Rocket Senior Matt Biegler and Adam Thormodson fought for control of the paint, a place Hillcrest often establishes themselves early. Throughout the night both teams worked for second chances and to end offensive series under the rim. Hillcrest out-rebounded the Rockets by 6 when the final buzzer sounded.
When the teams entered the locker rooms at half time the score was 33-27. Underwood played some of their best Basketball in the season during their first half. Stiff defense forced Hillcrest to take shots that didn't fall. The Rockets keyed on Hillcrest senior Chris Tungseth, knowing him the center piece for Hillcrest and the sole person who can take over a game at will. However, Underwood's push of Tungseth into the paint with Biegler took Tungseth's game from the perimeter to the rim where he had a difficult time scoring. Tungseth shot a meager 31% on the night, finishing with 14 points and only making 2 of 6 free throws.
Anyone who knows Tungseth off the court realizes that the poor shooting night didn't phase his leadership for the Comets. The Senior stepped into a different role Saturday night, leading the Comets with assists and rebounds, pulling together a pair of steals as he urged his team to stand on his shoulders and put the game away.
Sean McGuire was key in stepping up to Tungseth's step back. McGuire was big for Hillcrest, pulling down 7 rebounds as he and Tungseth fought for extra possessions under the rim. He also led the team in steals and gave out three assists.
With the Comet big men holding back the wave of Underwood scoring, Hillcrest's guards stepped into a role they are accustomed to. Tommy Thompson displayed his iconic patience on the court, scoring 11 points on a number of pump fake follow ups where he forced defender to fly over his head as he reset for uncontested jump shots.
In stride with Thompson was Kyler Newman. As Thompson forced defenders to fly from fakes, Newman soared to challenge the Rockets. Pulling in 14 points for Hillcrest, Newman used his stutter-step to perfection throughout the night. After the first wave of Rocket defenders picked themselves off the court, Newman breezed into the second wave where he left the court early and redirected his body on a number of occasions to earn highlight reel points. After attacking the basket a few times, Newman kept the Rockets off balance by dishing the ball to earn 8 points for Hillcrest off his 4 assists.
With Hillcrest placing four players in double-digits, the game was decided most decisively on the defensive side of the floor. Hillcrest worked in unison to force Underwood to sit down as they fought to soar over the Comets. Quick hands and penetrating passing lanes earned Hillcrest 18 turnovers from Underwood. On the offensive side, Hillcrest continued their team play where their passing and cutting kept Underwood away. The Comets played near perfect Basketball, turning the ball over an eye-popping 2 times before the JV squad walked on the court in the final minute of play.
Coach Gregg Preston reported that his team played their best half of Basketball in the second half Saturday night. The complete team effort earned a second half scoring differential of 14 points over an Underwood team that played some of the best Basketball the North Section of 6A has seen in the tournament thus far.
Hillcrest plays Lake Park-Audubon (LPA) Monday at 7pm at Concordia College in Moorhead. LPA is matching a 20 game win streak with the Comets 26-0 record. The winner plays the winner of Battle Lake and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa at 7pm on Friday, March 4 at Concordia College, Moorhead.