(UPDATED Feb. 10 with coach's comments, additional details, photo) Tightly-fought Feb. 7, 2020, home win moves CHS boys to league-best 4-0 in Midland Empire Conference, gives Benton first league loss

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — In a pivotal Midland Empire Conference high school basketball game that fully lived up to every bit of expectations, the host Chillicothe (Mo.) HS Hornets turned back St. Joseph: Benton 57-54 Friday (Feb. 7, 2020) to significantly improve CHS’ chances of its first conference title since 2003-04.

The victory was Chillicothe’s 11th in a row, its longest winning streak since a 22-gamer in 1997-98.

After a back-and-forth first half – neither team scored more than six consecutive points nor led by more than five – ended with Benton in front, 27-26, Chillicothe (16-3, 4-0 conf.) used its final basket of the opening half – Mason Baxter’s right-wing trey with eight seconds remaining – as a springboard to what became a 17-4 stretch that left it owning a 39-30 lead with three minutes left in the third period.

However, Benton quickly countered with eight points in a row in 64 seconds and finished the frame still with a 1-point lead, 43-42.

It remained a 1-possession game until the last 90 seconds when Hornets guard C.J. Pfaff had a driving Baxter’s deflected pass come right to him on the left wing for an unguarded 3-pointer. The triple briefly gave the home team a 4-points lead, 53-49, but Chol Ater’s trifecta from out top drew the Cardinals (12-6, 2-1 conf.) with 1:10 to go.

Chillicothe controlled the ball until Pfaff was fouled with only 26 seconds left. In the 1-and-1, the senior netted both tries for a 3-points gap.

Benton chose to attack the basket quickly and got Malique Bennett’s twisting layup to cut the lead back to one with still 20 seconds to go.

Once again, Chillicothe protected the ball and killed some valuable seconds before Westley Brandsgaard was fouled with 10 seconds left. As Pfaff had, he calmly swished both charity attempts to likely at least assure overtime.

During the ensuing timeout, Chillicothe coach Tim Cool utilized the team-fouls situation to his team’s advantage. With only two prior CHS fouls in the half, the Hornets twice let Benton get the ball in bounds in the backcourt and then fouled. With about six seconds left, after a frontcourt throw-in, as Benton star Chol Ater tried to dribble to open space to try a 3-points shot, he was fouled, requiring yet another sideline in-bounds play from near midcourt with about four seconds to go and CHS still with a foul to give without any free throws attached.

As Ater looked for a teammate to pass the ball in to, presumably with the hope of hurrying to an open spot and receiving a return pass, when he attempted to raise the ball from waist level to overhead, the ball slipped from his grip and sailed high into the air behind him and into the stands.

With the Chillicothe bench and partisans expecting the development to be called a violation that would give the Hornets possession and likely a chance to seal the victory with a successful throw-in to the CHS offensive end of the court, two of the officials huddled briefly and, surprisingly, emerged with a decision that Benton would retain possession. An examination of National Basketball Association rules posted online – rules which presumably would be identical for the National High Schools Federation, whose rules generally govern prep hoops – seems to indicate that the ruling should have been a violation of either the 5-seconds throw-in rule or a would-be in-bounds pass touching an object outside the court boundaries before being touched by an on-court player.

With the reprieve – warranted or not, Ater utilized the second chance to get the ball in to Bennett, but in the BHS backcourt. With several hurried dribbles on which Chillicothe – not wanting to risk a 3-shots shooting foul being ruled – chose not to commit its remaining non-bonus foul, Bennett got the ball to within about 23-25 feet before rushing a shot that veered hard and wide of the rim, hitting the backboard to the left of the hoop as the final horn blared.

Chillicothe’s triumph avenged an early December 2-points loss to Benton in the championship game of the Savannah Invitational Tournament.

Statistically, CHS’ We. Brandsgaard and BHS’ Ater each led their squad with 22 points. While Pfaff supplemented his Hornets teammate typically with 19, Benton’s next two scorers behind Ater combined for 19, as well, leaving it to the rest of their teams to settle the outcome.

A year after Pfaff and We. Brandsgaard literally had scored all of Chillicothe’s points in a surprise 39-32 victory on the Cardinals’ court, this time – led by Mason Baxter’s nine – four other Chillicothe players contributed 16 markers. When Benton’s other two scorers combined for only 13, the Hornets had their margin of victory.

A couple of divergent, non-scoring statistical totals offset each other to keep the game close.

Chillicothe unofficially had barely half (seven) of Benton’s 13 turnovers, a CHS advantage that was counter-weighted by the St. Joseph team’s approximately 25-20 lead in rebounds. Utilizing hard work and quick hands on the offensive glass, Benton had an 8-2 advantage in second-chance points, nearly resulting in a BHS win.

The second-chance points had their own offset, though, in Chillicothe’s sensational and clutch 12-of-13 free-throw shooting. We. Brandsgaard and Pfaff were a perfect 11 of 11 between them, compared to Benton’s sharp, but less prolific, 6-of-8 performance at the stripe.

Chillicothe's boys now are idle until next Wednesday when they'll make up a January postponement against western neigbor Hamilton: Penney. A would-be intervening game on Monday against East Buchanan was cancelled by joint agreement a week or two ago in order to give both teams more flexibility for rescheduling previously-postponed contests, especially conference ones.

The Hornets' next conference outing will be at home against Savannah next Friday, Feb. 14, as part of a girls/boys doubleheader.