Basketball Lady Hornets senior guard's four treys in first 10 minutes helps stake CHS to 22-8 lead in district tournament semifinal, but team follows with only two field goals in next 17-plus minutes, has 2017-18 season with 17-9 mark after 65-52 defeat by Savannah
By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor
CAMERON, Mo. — Behind career-best long-range sniping by senior guard Harlie Jones, the Chillicothe High School basketball Lady Hornets began their Class 4 District 16 Tournament semifinal game like a house afire Monday night.
Unfortunately for them, once the veteran and talented Savannah Lady Savages activated the sprinkler system, the Lady Hornets could not create another spark until it effectively was too late, sustaining a 65-52 defeat that ended their very good 2017-18 season with a final mark of 17-9.
Jones’ four 3-pointers in five attempts in the first 10 minutes of Monday’s contest rocketed the third-seeded CHS girls to a stunning 22-8 lead against the No. 2 seed, which had defeated Chillicothe twice in three prior contests this season.
“They came ready to play tonight,” Darren Smith, Chillicothe fourth-year head coach, lauded his squad’s early-game sharpness. “Sometimes we get off to a little bit of a slow start, but, man, they were pumped and they were ready to go.”
However, he mused, what followed the blistering CHS start might have been a by-product of what fueled the Lady Hornets initially.
“Sometimes,” he noted ruefully, “whenever you have that heavy adrenaline like that, after so long, it wears off a little bit.”
However, following Kennedie Kieffer’s weak-side putback of the senior lefty’s first miss at the 6:03 mark of the second quarter, Chillicothe netted only two field goals – a Jordan Hibner trey and Kieffer paint bucket in the third stanza – over the game’s next 17:50 of action, the equivalent of more than half a game.
That ice age opened the door for Savannah to find its offensive rhythm and create momentum that swept the Lady Savages (18-8) past the inert Lady Hornets and to as much as a 19-points fourth-quarter lead before CHS attempted a long-odds rally that never got them back within single digits.
“They started making a lot of shots – some contested, some not,” Smith said of Savannah’s comeback, beginning in the middle of the second quarter as they cut the 14-points deficit early in that stanza to merely 23-21 at halftime.
“I said I never saw a team that rattled in as many shots as they did tonight. They’re good shooters, so you know they’re going to put it close,” the Chillicothe coach reflected.
Savannah and top seed St. Joseph: Benton will tussle for the district championship and state tournament berth Thursday at 6 p.m. at Cameron.
Chillicothe, meanwhile, hangs up the sneakers after a successful season many doubted they could produce after losing 10 seniors – including three 4-years starters and two 3-years starters – who had been involved in three-straight trips to state play and 20-wins-plus seasons.
“The accomplishments this team has had and this group of seniors … those girls refused to listen to the outside voices of how we were going to be and took us to a level I don’t think very many people thought we would be at,” a proud Smith congratulated in a post-game interview.
“(2017-18 seniors) Liberty Cox, Harlie Jones, Maddi Graham really did a super job of leading this team” he continued. “Tonight, Harlie did by scoring, but most of the time it wasn’t (offensively). It was just their confidence and the way they handled themselves and the way they went about their business.
“Extremely proud of those three seniors and, really, just the whole team.”
Chillicothe fans were deliriously happy with the opening quarter-plus of Tuesday’s game, which accorded CHS a chance to square the extended season series with Savannah on the same floor where the Lady Hornets had defeated the Lady Savages in the championship game of the Cameron Invitational Tournament a month earlier.
Chillicothe controlled the ball off the opening tip and Jones quickly trumpeted her and the team’s fast-starting intentions, hitting a running shot from about 10 feet away in the lane 20 seconds in.
After neither side scored on the next two possessions, Savannah got on the board with a free throw 91 seconds after the opening tap, but the Lady Hornets then took off.
Less than 20 ticks after that, Jones found open space on the left wing and hit the trifecata, beginning what would become a 15-5 surge the remainder of the opening stanza. Two Hunter Keithley free throws a half-minute after that made it 7-1, Chillicothe, after only 2:20.
Even a countering 3-pointer by SHS reserve swing forward Grace Stites didn’t faze the hot Lady Hornets. Keithley scored on a transition drive a half-minute later before, after 90 scoreless seconds, setting Jones up for her second triple and a 12-4 CHS lead.
After Savannah used a 2-on-1 fast break to score, Keithley turned Cox’s offensive rebound into a driving, 9-feet, bank shot from the left side to counteract it.
Fifty seconds later, as the clock moved under 45 seconds left in the first frame, Jones again spotted up alone outside the arc atop the key as Savannah’s defense hung back to try to take away’s Kieffer’s inside threat and Keithley’s slashing drives. A third time, the senior lefthander – her team’s most-experienced player entering the season – made the Lady Savages pay to the tune of three points for a 17-6 CHS lead after one quarter.
As the second segment began, the question was whether Jones’ uncanny and unexpected accuracy could or would continue and whether, if Savannah chose to adjust its defense to try to cover her more closely, other Lady Hornets then could exploit the lesser attention on them.
On Chillicothe’s second possession of the quarter, with SHS having used a follow shot to reduce the lead to nine, evidence was offered that Jones might be “in the zone” all night. Catching a pass just right of the key from Keithley on the left wing while Savannah failed to have someone close to her, she flicked her left arm and wrist once again from downtown. Even though her aim at the rim was off this time, the result was what she wanted as the ball banked off the backboard square above the cylinder and straight through the hoop for her fourth 3-ball in as many tries in the first 9-1/2 minutes.
That made the Chillicothe lead 12 points and it soon would grow, even as Jones’ “unconscious” state ended.
A half-minute after her fourth trey, Jones launched again from deep on the right side. This time, it was too long, but there waiting on the left side of the rim was Kieffer. She snagged the rebound and leaned in for a putback off the window that pushed the Lady Hornets’ unlikely lead at 14.
With 22 points on the board in just under 10 minutes of game time, had fate simply decreed it to be Chillicothe’s night?
When Savannah didn’t score on its next couple of possessions, leaving it still stuck on eight points after more than 11 minutes of action, it certainly seemed possible.
However, when the Lady Hornets started missing shots – some wide open from outside, others makeable from short range – and also began to have some turnover issues, the amount of remaining time – still 2-1/2 quarters – allowed the senior-dominated Lady Savages to remain unpanicked.
Once they got the offensive scent – starting with Anna Hill’s putback basket 3-1/2 minutes before halftime and then her left-wing trey 40 seconds later that made it a single-digit game again, they never slowed down until the game was essentially out of reach. Hill, only recently elected to the starting lineup, scored nine points in the last 3-1/2 minutes of the first half.
“It’s hard to score at the rate we were scoring in the first quarter,” stated Smith. “… What you hope for is (when first shots stop falling) that you can get some offensive rebounds and some stickbacks” to keep the lead that’s been built relatively stable.
That didn’t happen for Chillicothe, though.
“Harlie came out shooting ‘lights out’ tonight. … Really got us going well,” the CHS coach saluted, “but we just never got anybody else going. We were a 1-trick pony. That’s the way it was until that fourth quarter.”
Once the Lady Hornets went dry from the floor – it didn’t have another first-half field goal after Kieffer’s putback, had only a noisy Hibner triple off Cox’s pass in the first minute of the second in a span of 11:10, and only that and Kieffer’s tough, turnaround 11-footer from the paint in the incomprehensible 17:55 stretch, Savannah blew by.
After scoring 13 of the first half’s last 14 points to shave their deficit to two at intermission, the Lady Savages erased the last sliver of the once-large gap less than three minutes into the second half on Hill’s three-points play when she got an awkward driving shot from the lane to fall – one of the shots the Chillicothe head coach referenced that drew iron, but still dropped in.
Only 14 seconds later, Savannah moved ahead for the first and only time as Stites – who, as a starter, led SHS with 19 points in its late November win over Chillicothe, but came off the bench again this time – hit a pair of free throws on her way to a huge 19-points second half and 27-points night.
When Stites soon followed with a driving score in transition, Savannah had scored nine points in a row, transforming the 5-points deficit Hibner’s shot had briefly recreated into a 4-points SHS margin.
From there, things just got worse and worse for Chillicothe.
After the Lady Hornets inched back within one possession on a Hibner free throw, Stites struck again, doubling her team’s advantage to six with a right-wing bomb.
Even the rare CHS basket – Kieffer’s shot from the paint – didn’t create any ripples in Savannah’s smooth play, which matched it a half-minute later, then followed with another scratchy deuce that came coupled with a Chillicothe foul and, when the free throw missed, a Madi Rowland putback. In 37 seconds, a 4-points game had jumped up to a 10-points spread, headed toward a 43-31 SHS lead by third quarter’s end.
The Lady Savages’ 22-points third quarter proved only to be a preview. Fairly effectively converting at the free-throw line as Chillicothe began fouling to lengthen the game about 90 seconds into the last stanza, Savannah posted another 22 tallies in the last eight minutes, giving it a 44-points half against a Chillicothe team which had allowed that many in a game only 10 times in its 25 regular-season outings.
While acknowledging the desperation strategy his team had to employ in the last quarter factored in to that high total of opposition points, Smith observed, “They scored too many points. That’s too many points for us to give up.”
Behind by 14 two minutes into the second quarter, when Savannah’s Hill hit a free throw with 5:12 left in the fourth, it gave her team a shocking 19-points lead – a 33-points swing over a span of only 15:06.
As the game moved into its last 4:10, Chillicothe finally escaped its offensive paralysis, as far as scoring from the field. In doing so, it tried to fan the fading embers of hope among the team and its fans of somehow pulling off a miracle comeback.
Graham’s trey from the top of the key became only the third CHS basket in nearly 18 minutes. When Hibner sank four of five free throws a second apart about 30 seconds later and Keithley fed Graham for an easy right-side lay-in 18 seconds after that, the long-growing deficit quickly had been carved by one-third to 55-43 in under a minute and with still 3:18 to play.
When Savannah followed by missing two free throws at the 3:04 mark, the Lady Hornets could have had the ball with a chance to get within nine or 10 and create some real doubt and worry among Savannah faithful. However, Chillicothe failed to secure the rebound of the second missed attempt and Savannah killed another 17 seconds before Stites went to the charity stripe and deposited both attempts in the well, taking the SHS lead back to 14.
While the Lady Hornets continued to scramble gamely with Keithley netting all seven of their points as they eventually closed to within 60-50 with 1:17 remaining, the climb back was too steep.
As Savannah was hitting five of six free throws in the last 1:02 to push the margin back to 15, Smith used the multiple stoppages to – one by one – bring his three seniors off the court one last time as Lady Hornets so they could receive deserved warm applause from the CHS fans on hand.
Just the final horn sounded, in a portent of what might be to come, junior Kieffer hit a stickback of her own missed shot for the final points of the season, completing an 11-points, 10-rebounds double-double for a player who, if healthy, should be a cornerstone of another potentially-outstanding season next winter.
“It’s a hungry group,” Smith said of this season’s potential 2018-19 returnees. “They want to be successful and they’re willing to work to do it.
“We had a great summer last summer and I knew, coming into this year, that we were going to be better than people thought. We’ll see what this summer looks like, but I’ve got a feeling that this group of girls I’m bringing back will get to work and have a really good summer.”
As for the now-concluded current campaign, the coach reflected, “After the (58-43 loss at Macon on Dec. 12, leaving the young squad 2-4) was whenever we kind of regrouped and figured some things out and started doing things more the way we needed to do them to be successful.”
Five-games winning streaks sandwiching a loss to Kearney on the KHS court – including an unexpected and impressive, come-from-behind win at Boonville – followed that Macon loss. The stretch was capped by the 59-49 triumph over Savannah in the title game of the Cameron tournament.
The following week, after a disappointing outing and decisive loss at Smithville, the Lady Hornets posted their highlight win of the season, shocking Benton 33-27 on its home court with another comeback. It was the Lady Hornets’ first win on the Benton floor in 21 years.
“I don’t think there was a team out there that this bunch of girls ever went into (a game) thinking, ‘Well, we’re not going to win,’” praised Smith. “They just had that confidence that, if they did what we as a coaching staff asked them to do, we would be in the game and we’d see what happened at the end.
“… We played a ton of close games – all year long, a ton of close games. I need a break, but I wasn’t really ready for it to end tonight.”
Statistically in their season finale, the Lady Hornets put three scorers in double digits – something they did only four other times this season. Jones and Keithley led the way with 14 points apiece, along with Kieffer’s 11.
In addition to Stites’ 27, Savannah had 14 from Hill, who replaced Stites in the starting lineup a few weeks ago, and 10 by Rowland.
While Kieffer double-doubled, sophomore Keithley led the team with three assists, unofficially, in addition to grabbing five rebounds.
After committing only one turnover in its excellent first quarter, Chillicothe unofficially had 15 over the last three segments. Savannah had only nine giveaways, unofficially.