Few things are more rattling than free throws. Boisterous gyms can grow either suddenly still or insanely distracting in seconds, with all eyes on a player standing 15 feet from the backboard. Most players have an ingrained ritual that helps calm nerves as they work to earn a single point with a single shot. For Hillcrest, a series of single points lifted their score over a very talented and mentally tough Ortonville team Tuesday night. The Comets pushed the game into overtime and walked into the locker room with a 62-56 win.
After starting lineups were called, Hillcrest set their foot on the pedal and pushed it to the floor. Quick transitions caught the Ortonville Trojans off-guard. As Ortonville worked to setup their defense, Hillcrest quickly dished the ball around the key, seemingly operating on auto pilot as they soared to a 22-9 lead with 8 minutes left in the half. With Hillcrest executing their offense through strong habits of crisp passing and good shooting, the defensive end of the court rolled along with the momentum. The Trojans looked to meet the Comets punch for punch from 15 feet and beyond, but failed attempts gave Hillcrest opportunities to crash the boards and grab rebounds, halting second chances and a mounting Trojan comeback. The game looked like it was well in hand for Hillcrest.
The Trojans are well coached. Their players never looked rattled, even when they were caught out of position as Kyler Newman zipped by or Tommy Thompson spotted up from beyond the arc. Stepping back into a zone, the Trojans watched as the Comets grew passive on the perimeter. Ortonville placed three of their quickest guards around the top of the three-point line to stop the Comets' offense. Keystone passes to move the defense were now defended for Hillcrest, limiting the Trojans from being caught out of position on defense. Hillcrest worked to break the 3-2 zone, but struggled to get their sharp passing offense started as the perimeter was highly defended.
With the defensive side locked down, the Trojans set to work on cutting into their 13 point deficit. A series of steals brought them within 9, and a steady march of good defensive stands cut the Comet lead to 7 as they entered the locker room for halftime adjustments.
The Trojans would continue to chip away at the Comet lead in the second half, despite stifling defense and some aggressive drives to the basket from Hillcrest. Senior Tommy Thompson was most effective at starting the offense, carrying a strong aggressive attack from the perimeter. Thompson's leadership opened lanes for Kyler Newman and Reggie Undseth, who consistently badgered the Trojans as they flew through the air to grab rebounds and contest shots.
The Trojans took the lead with 8:40 to go in the game. Their long march to build momentum woke Hillcrest's senior leaders, who haven't been satisfied with how Hillcrest has finished in their recent contests.
Down four points with three minutes left, Senior Daniel Preston received an entry pass on the low block in front of the Comets' fans. With his defender at his back, Daniel dropped his left shoulder, shifted his weight back to his right, and power stepped through his defender, opening a layup lane that he went hard to in pulling Hillcrest within two points.
As the Comets transitioned to defense Tommy Thompson slapped the floor and stepped hard into a Trojan screen. The strong move defensively pinned Thompson between the ball handler and a Trojan screener. Thompson's quick hands tipped the ball out of the Trojan passer who was looking for an open lane to give the ball off, after Thompson disrupted the Trojans' set play. Thompson took the ball and brought it down for Hillcrest, who earned an out of bounds play that saw Preston spot up at the top of the arc for some late game heroics. Preston's three pointer put the Comets up one, 42-41, with 1:40 left in the game.
The Trojans marched down the court, and after a set of offensive and defensive series, hit a three pointer to step ahead of Hillcrest 44-42 with 40 seconds left in the game.
Hillcrest entered a stall offense, looking for a shot within 10 seconds to tie the game. With 15 seconds on the clock, Tommy Thompson took the ball at the top of the key and made a strong drive to the left side of the court, calling out two Trojan defenders who were pulled between Thompson on the key, Sam Isaac near the top of the three point line, and Daniel Preston spotting up for a jumper on the far side of the court. Kyler Newman cut out from the lane as Thompson drove, opening a narrow window for Thompson to take the ball to the basket. But, as Thompson pulled his dribble back two feet toward the Comet fans, the Trojans extended their defense, opening a back door cut for Newman who received a loft pass from Thompson and was demolished as he extended to the backboard. The Trojans were not going to let Hillcrest into overtime easily.
Newman stepped to the line as the gym grew still. Nine seconds were left on the clock. The ball bounced easily to Newman as he took a decisive step towards the basket and placed his right tow behind the black free throw line. Newman's free throw routine is flawless, practiced hundreds of times in his four years in a Comet jersey. The first shot sailed in with no hesitation. The Trojans called a time out to ice Newman, who simply exited the huddle after 15 seconds to push Hillcrest into overtime, lighting a fire in the Comets.
From the moment the tipoff of overtime reached the Comets, they were in control. Newman played angry, determined to have Hillcrest close out the lights with a win. An inbounds layup was followed by a 15 foot jumper from the corner that started an 18 point scoring streak for Hillcrest in the 4 minute overtime. Newman kicked off the extra period with the first 7 points.
Hillcrest put on a clinic throughout the rest of the overtime period. Tommy Thompson dazzled, shooting 7-of-8 from the free throw line in extra minutes as he continued his aggressive play on the offensive side. Newman and Thompson paired for all 18 points Hillcrest scored in extra minutes, making a statement to the conference that the Comets are in the business of closing out games, no matter the stress of free throw shooting or stifling defense.
The Comets' closeout on Tuesday night was a strong stand as they continue their march toward playoffs. Sitting at 15-7 on the season, Hillcrest is in a 3-way tie for the conference. They play Thursday against Hancock before their senior night contest against Rothsay on Friday to close out the month of February.