CHS takes control of Midland Empire Conference game against highly-touted foe Thursday, Feb. 1, after scoring only four points in first 14-1/2 minutes. Win Lady Hornets' first at Benton since January 1997.
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — In a stunning turnaround – both within the game itself and from their previous outing, the Chillicothe High School basketball Lady Hornets Thursday night (Feb. 1, 2018) threw the 2017-18 Midland Empire Conference race into unexpected chaos, shocking a St. Joseph: Benton team many viewed as among the state’s five best in Class 4 33-27 at Benton’s “Pop” Springer Gymnasium.
“The maturity (level) of this team from when we played Hamilton in the season opener to now is leaps and bounds (ahead),” Darren Smith, CHS head coach, said in a post-game broadcast interview.
In a separate interview on a videocast a bit later, he expanded, “This group of girls is so resliient. … I thought they showed a lot of toughness, a lot of resilience, and a lot of will.”
The Lady Hornets' last hoops win at Benton prior to Thursday had come on Jan. 7, 1997, in the late Rich Fairchild's last season as coach before being felled by brain cancer which took his life barely 16 months later.
In addition, coupled with a home victory over injury-hobbled Benton last season, Chillicothe now has consecutive triumphs over the Lady Cardinals for the first time since the fourth-to-last victory of Fairchild's career during district tourney play in 1997 and, after he fell ill late the next fall, a non-conference triumph early the following season under his emergency replacement, Laurie Hardie. The first of those back-to-back CHS wins came on a neutral floor (Cameron) and the latter in Chillicothe.
Unable to score in the first 4-1/2 minutes of Thursday's game and needing nearly 11 minutes to garner their first field goal, the Lady Hornets (13-6, 2-1 MEC) trailed 14-4 with 1:20 remaining in the opening half before suddenly finding their offensive groove.
“We started getting things going toward the basket, rather than away from the basket,” Smith observed on the change of offensive fortunes.
Doing that while continuing to defend well against a Benton squad which, uncharacteristically, was stone-cold in its shooting – particularly from long distance, Chillicothe climbed back into unanticipated contention on Harlie Jones’ trey from atop the key about three minutes into the second half.
Within a possession after that shot, CHS weathered a Benton attempt to brush it off. Consecutive Gabby Fuller deuces put the Lady Cardinals (19-2, 2-1 MEC) ahead by their halftime margin – seven points – with 3:15 left in the third stanza, but that would be the hosts’ last basket until the game’s final 30 seconds.
Jones struck again from the top of the key to reignite Chillicothe’s momentarily-interrupted momentum and Kennedie Kieffer’s bucket in the paint with just over a minute to go in the third once again drew CHS within a possession at 19-16.
Then, just the quarter was ending, came the play which seemed to earmark the game as destined to go to the guests.
Attempting to fire a shot from midcourt before the horn ended the third stanza, CHS reserve guard Catey Trout – known much more for her feisty defense than scoring ability – was crashed into, drawing a whistle for a foul. With the court empty and time expired, Trout coolly stepped to the stripe and sank not one, not two, but all three charity tosses she’d earned. A game Benton was widely expected to win handily was tied at 19 going to the fourth frame.
Although it had possession to start the last quarter, Chillicothe missed its first chance to take a lead since its first couple of possessions and eventually would require more than 4-1/2 minutes to add to its 19-points total.
However, because their own defensive prowess – which included junior center Kennedie Kieffer drawing three charging fouls on the night to go with nine points and an unofficial 11 rebounds, the Lady Hornets still were within two points, having limited Benton to two free throws in that stretch.
“Man, did she light it up tonight, defensively and rebounding,” said Smith of Kieffer, who almost drew a fourth charge.
Following a Benton miss with about 3:40 to go, Chillicothe hustled the ball upcourt and set up a good shot from short range on the right side. It missed, but Kieffer was in good position on the left side to snare the carom and quickly flick the ball back off the glass and in, tying the game again with about 3:25 to play.
Another fruitless BHS possession – the Lady Cardinals scored only one point in a 6:04 stretch of the closing quarter – once again gave the visitors a chance to lead for the first time and this CHS took advantage.
A minute after Kieffer’s tying stickback, Hunter Keithley was fouled while trying to shoot and made one of the two free throws for a 22-21 edge.
Fifty seconds later, Kieffer took a nice entry pass from the right wing with her back to the basket, just at the right edge of the lane, about 10 feet from the hoop. In one smooth, quick move, she pivoted to her right into the paint, rose, and popped in a jumper while being either pushed or clipped on the arm. The junior swished the free throw and, with a bit over 1-1/2 minutes left, Chillicothe had a 2-possessions lead.
Seeming to panic a bit, being in the unfamiliar spot, Benton quickly launched a 3-point shot and again missed with Kieffer claiming the carom. On the ensuing possession, a BHS double-team attempt on the right side left Keithley alone at the top of the key. When the pass was able to be made to her, the sophomore unhesitatingly launched and hit a trey with about 1:05 on the clock. Incredibly, Chillicothe’s lead had grown to seven points.
Over the next 30 seconds, it could have grown more and could have shrunk, but instead stayed there as Chillicothe missed three free throws and Benton one.
Finally, with a half-minute to go, two Melanie Murphy foul shots were true, giving Benton a crack at a last-gasp comeback, if its vaunted defense could force a turnover or two or get continued CHS misses at the line and then convert on the offensive end.
However, when Keithley calmly deposited two free throws in the CHS account with 28 seconds left, again making it a 3-possessions game, the upset began to firm up. Even with Fuller driving to score in just four seconds, pulling her team with 30-25 with the Lady Cardinals’ first field goal in 10:50, when Chillicothe got the ball safely in-bounds, forcing a foul of Jordan Hibner with 22 seconds to play, the home team was down to its final flicker of hope.
Hibner calmly extinguished it, sinking both free throws to once again give her team a 7-points lead. After a BHS turnover, Keithley was fouled and created Chillicothe’s largest lead, 33-25, with a foul shot with 12 seconds remaining, before a meaningless Benton hoop set the final gap at six.
Chillicothe’s conquest Thursday leaves it, Smithville, Benton, and St. Joseph: Lafayette all tied for second in the MEC at 2-1, a half-game behind 2-0 Savannah. However, CHS, Benton, and Smithville are finished playing each other, while neither Savannah nor Lafayette has taken on any of those three.
Savannah will face both Benton and Smithville at home, but will have to visit Chillicothe. Lafayette also will call on Chillicothe, as well as going to Benton, while hosting Smithville.
In advantageous scheduling, all four of Chillicothe’s remaining MEC games will be at home. Five of its seven league games are at home this season.
Statistically, the CHS-Benton game fittingly did not produce a twin-digits scorer.
In addition to Kieffer’s nine points, CHS had five others with between three and eight. Benton was paced by Fuller’s eight. One of its top threats, forward Mia Henderson, was unable to score again after netting five in the opening stanza. She spent quite a bit of time on the sidelines in foul trouble.
Chillicothe won despite top reserve Maggie Pfaff again being sidelined with health problems, according to broadcast reports.