Cardinals survive poor free-throw shooting, take Savannah tournament title as CHS “O” falters late

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

SAVANNAH, Mo. — Chillicothe (Mo.) HS’ basketball Hornets are in their ninth year of defying the odds – unfortunately, not in a positive way.

Saturday afternoon (Dec. 7, 2019), the opening week of the season for the current edition of Hornets hoopsters found them in a familiar setting – playing for a tournament championship. It was the 12th time in their 8-plus seasons under the tutelage of head coach Tim Cool they had earned the chance to play for a tourney crown.

The outcome proved familiar, as well, which – for Chillicothe – was disappointing.

Despite faulty free-throw shooting and a mental lapse of their own in the last two minutes of the title game of the 2019 Savannah Invitational, St. Joseph: Benton’s Cardinals closed out a 39-36 victory.

It was the 11th championship-game loss for CHS in those 12 appearances under Cool, with six of the defeats by three points or less and another by four.

Five Hornets turnovers in their last seven possessions led to CHS scoring only once – on freshman Griff Bonderer’s 3-pointer – in the game’s last six minutes.

That closing futility was perfectly encapsulated in the Hornets’ last possession when, trailing by three with 18 seconds to go, they not only didn’t even get a shot away, but didn’t even get a look at a potential tying trey.

Even after an unwise Cardinals foul with four seconds left when a Hornet had the ball well inside the 3-points line gave CHS a chance to take one last timeout and design a play to get a 3-pointer off, Chillicothe mishandled the in-bounds pass and, as Benton recovered it on its offensive end, the final horn sounded.

The Hornets’ spate of late mistakes not only limited them to two shot attempts in the final three minutes of a game they trailed only 34-33 at that time, but led directly or indirectly to five of Benton’s points in a 7-3 closing push in the last five minutes.

That the game ended with a 1-possession margin was utterly fitting since only 3:06 of the contest’s 32 minutes of action were spent with either team ahead by four or more points. Each club had one 5-points spread – Chillicothe for 80 seconds in the opening period after running off eight unanswered tallies to lead 8-3 and Benton at 38-33 for 89 seconds inside the last 2-1/2 minutes.

Such a tight score magnified both team’s shortfalls, especially down the stretch.

With Chillicothe’s offense dysfunctional, including the turnovers, in the late going, Benton missed a chance to salt the game away by missing five of six free throws – twice on the front end of bonus opportunities – in the last five minutes. It also had a player called for three seconds in the lane – a review of game video showed he actually never left the paint for 17 seconds before the whistle sounded – inside the last two minutes.

“In this type of game , … every possession is so important,” Cool commented to the C-T afterward, “and, if a team gets a 2-possession lead, that’s huge. That is hard to overcome.

“When it was 38-33, I think, we battled and battled back and gave ourselves a chance and I’m proud of our guys.”

Chillicothe’s late-game sloppiness in ball security contrasted with an otherwise solid performance in that department. Unofficially, the Hornets turned the ball over only nine times in the first 24 minutes before having six in the last eight.

While the shaky ending was easier to finger as being the primary cause for the defeat, Cool concurred with an observation that better shooting – especially within a few feet of the bucket – in the first half, with its as-usual stalwart defense, could have given Chillicothe a measure of command far earlier.

“I thought in the first half we had some opportunities to extend (leads) a little bit,” the coach reflected, “and then they took advantage of some things we did in the second half – they had a couple of ‘runouts’ on turnovers.”

On the heels of their sharp win by 19 points over Platte County Thursday that qualified them to battle for the tourney crown, the Hornets shrugged off a trey by BHS point guard Malique Bennett in the first 35 seconds with an 8-0 response in a span of 2-1/2 minutes.

Senior Westley Brandsgaard, named later to the all-tournament team, double-pumped a shot from the left block area through the hoop to get CHS on the scoreboard before C.J. Pfaff’s hanging left-handed shot on a cut to the paint in transition put the Hornets in front 4-3.

A single Pfaff free throw out of three attempts inched Chillicothe ahead 5-3 before his crisp pass found fellow senior Bradley Riley open at the top of the key for a triple at the 4:23 mark of the opening quarter.

However, as happened in each of the four segments of the contest, the Hornets’ attack went missing in the latter portion of the first stanza. They did not score again the rest of the frame, which ended with an 8-8 knot.

The second period saw the most short-range misfires by Chillicothe, preventing it from furthering a 16-12 lead it owned 3:45 before halftime. Tallying only once the remainder of the quarter, the Hornets went from up four to behind 19-18 at the mid-game break.

The third period saw neither team lead by more than two points. After CHS scored only one deuce and two free throws in the last 4:15, it headed to the last segment with a tie score, 29-29.

Riley’s left-side lay-in off a sensational We. Brandsgaard backhand, cross-lane pass snapped the deadlock 50 seconds into the final frame. About a minute later, Mason Baxter answered a three-points play by Benton star Chol Ater with a 17-foot jumper from the right baseline for a 33-32 Chillicothe edge. However, more than five minutes would pass before the Hornets budged their side of the scoreboard and the famine ultimately proved fatal.

“Our guys were there all night,” Cool complimented his players’ tenacity in keeping a chance of victory alive despite the offensive woes.

“This is the third game of the year and, playing for a championship, we’ve already been through a lot,” the coach remarked, “and our guys are learning a lot.”

Chillicothe’s difficulty against Benton in sustaining its scoring through the length of each period wasn’t a new phenomenon, despite this season’s youth.

In last Monday’s season-opening loss to Savannah, CHS managed only five first-period points – merely two in the last 6:20. After narrowing what was as much as a 15-points deficit in the second quarter to six, the Hornets then went dry from the floor and scored only two free throws in the last 3:25 of the third stanza.

Finally, after whittling the Savages’ 10-points lead after three quarters to a single marker with 3:45 to go, Chillicothe did not produce another point the rest of the contest to lose by five.

Statistically in Saturday’s title-game loss, We. Brandsgaard topped Chillicothe’s scoring with 14 points, but Benton blanked him in the last quarter. He pulled down eight rebounds and, unofficially, a team-high three assists. Pfaff’s unofficial nine boards led the Hornets in that category.

Benton’s Ater rang up a game-high 21 points.

Chillicothe's next scheduled game is not until next Friday, Dec. 13, when the Hornets and Lady Hornets are to travel to Trenton for a varsity twinbill.

Trenton's top-seeded girls were shocked by No. 3 seed Braymer, 39-37, in the championship game of the Gallatin Invitational Tournament Saturday, while its boys were downed 68-58 by Polo in the tourney's third-place game.

In the Savannah tourney's girls' championship game Saturday afternoon, Kansas City: Staley erased an 11-points deficit it faced against defending champion Independence: William Chrisman in the third quarter and pulled out a 54-52 overtime victory.