Dominate visiting Cameron 19-11 in fourth quarter Friday (Feb. 21) to win 53-45, claim one-third of league crown. Hornets trounce Dragons 67-33 to end regular season 19-4

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo. — Their hopes of a 2019-20 Midland Empire Conference championship – quite bright at the start of the week – unexpectedly flickering like a candle flame in a drafty room, the Chillicothe (Mo.) HS basketball Lady Hornets finally blazed to life early in the fourth quarter of Friday’s (Feb. 21) regular-season finale against visiting Cameron, illuminating their path to the crowded throne.
Facing 7-points deficits early in the second and third quarters, the Lady Hornets lit the fuse on a decisive 15-3 run two minutes into the final stanza and rocketed to a 53-45 triumph which left them as MEC tri-champions with Maryville and Kansas City: St. Pius X.
“I thought we played tight,” Chillicothe head coach Darren Smith assessed in a post-game broadcast interview. “(The Chillicothe players) knew the magnitude of the night. They understood that, if we won this game, we share in the conference championship.”
The tri-champs split their league games against each other, resulting in each having identical 6-1 league ledgers. Both MHS and SPX had wrapped up their loop action with wins Thursday night.
CHS’ girls finished atop the MEC for a fourth time in the past six years, having taken the crowns in 2014-15, ’15-’16, and ’16-’17, all under the guidance of Smith, as this year’s is.
Following the CHS girls’ fast-closing conquest over the Lady Dragons Friday, Chillicothe’s Hornets slew the Dragons handily, as expected, rolling 67-33 with a 37-6 first-half run that featured 19 unanswered points in one 4:05 span.
Those results send the Chillicothe teams into the coming week’s Class 3 District 14 tournament on their home court with 17-7 (girls) and 19-4 (boys) records. Both are the No. 1 seed for their respective genders.
If the Lady Hornets capture the district title, as they are a significant favorite to do, and the Hornets win at least their first-round game, which is a virtual certainty, both CHS squads will have posted at least 20 victories this season. That would be the first time for that shared level of season-long Chillicothe roundball success since 1996-97, the final year of the late Rich Fairchild’s highly-successful, though tragically-shortened tenure leading the CHS girls.
This year’s Lady Hornets will tip off the district tourney in the CHS gym Monday at 4:30 p.m., taking on lowly Lexington. The Hornets will have Tuesday’s 4:30 p.m. opener against struggling Trenton.
“This group of girls is really good about playing the game in front of them,” Smith said of how he expects his squad’s heavy-favorite status in Monday’s game and through the week not to be problematic.
As for the Chillicothe boys’ approach – the No. 2 seed in their division (Richmond) will be a real challenge, if they meet, Hornets head coach Tim Cool said in his post-game comments Friday, “We’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing, which is one possession at a time, really concentrating and focusing on one possession. Let’s get a stop on this possession defensively and let’s get a great shot on offense. Our guys have bought into that and that’s what we have to do.
“In the postseason, you can’t have a bad quarter. You’ve got to be consistent, you’ve got to be tough, and you’ve got to be ready every night.”
The district tournament’s girls’ semifinal games are to be Wednesday with the boys’ the next night. The championship games are ticketed for Saturday (Feb. 29).
This past Fridays “Senior Night” regular-season finales saw both Chillicothe head coaches have all of their seniors on the court at the opening tipoff. That might have played a role in the Lady Hornets’ uneven performance, not because of incapable play by the departing 12th graders – three of whom were getting the lone starts of their varsity careers, but because of altered player rotations that seemingly affected some younger players’ getting “into their games” once they came into the contest.
“It was one of those games where we never got in a flow,” Smith acknowledged.
Cameron’s vastly-improved 2019-20 girls (15-9, 3-4 conf.) capitalized on Chillicothe’s offensive tentativeness to take the lead about 3-1/2 minutes into the action and largely keep it away from the home team until the Lady Hornets’ fourth-quarter charge.
With the score knotted at 7-7 after one quarter, the Lady Dragons – greatly enhanced this year by the presence of move-in Laini Joseph – got a three-points play and then a steal and breakaway layup from her and putback from sturdy center Olivia Moore in a span of 70 seconds to suddenly seize a 14-7 advantage.
Chillicothe rallied on the strength of four spaced-out trifectas, regaining the lead for the first time since first-time starter Haley Kidd netted the game’s first basket when freshman guard Jessica Reeter found the range from the right corner off a Hunter Keithley setup.
Cameron quickly reclaimed the lead at 20-19 with another Moore stickback and her uncontested, left-side lay-in after a driving Joseph’s quick hook pass in the final 10 seconds of the opening half made it 22-19, visitors, at the break.
When the Lady Dragons tallied six of the first eight points of the second half, they regained the 7-points lead they’d had nine minutes before.
That prompted Smith to call a timeout and deliver stern instructions designed to jump-start his team’s competitive heart. It worked.
“Our intensity and our want-to picked up a ton,” recalled Smith.
The Lady Hornets scored for only the second time in the third quarter on their next possession as Keithley popped and hit from 15 feet at the 4:19 mark off Essie Hicks’ pass.
Although Cameron soon matched that, consecutive triples from opposite sides of the floor by Jordan Hibner – the Lady Hornets’ all-time leader in 3s for a game, season, and career – within a span of less than 50 seconds rapidly reduced the guests’ lead to 30-29.
“Jordan Hibner was huge tonight with 3-pointers,” her coach saluted.
A swap of two made free throws by each side kept it a 1-point gap until Hibner struck once more from long range. Taking a Selby Miller pass, she swished a 3-ball from left of the key for Chillicothe’s first lead since late in the second stanza.
After running the clock down to the last few seconds, Joseph tied things at 34-34 after three quarters with a nifty cross-lane drive from right of the key that she ended with a lefthanded shot, leaving the game’s outcome to be decided in the final eight minutes or more.
Two Cameron free throws 14 seconds into the fourth frame put Chillicothe in catch-up mode again and when it didn’t score on its first two or three possessions of the quarter, nervousness on the part of its fans grew.
Then came a play that, it turned out, ratcheted the result the Lady Hornets’ way.
Following a Cameron turnover – one of, unofficially, seven it committed in the last quarter, the ball was in sophomore forward Hicks’ hands near the right corner on the offensive end.
With a quick fake to her left, she drove to her right, flashing between her defender and the baseline toward the lane. With the player assigned to her in her wake, Hicks saw the strong 6’ Moore come toward her from the opposite side of the paint. With that big defender positioning herself just to the offensive right side of the basket, the Chillicothe sophomore had to make a quick decision whether to try to pass the ball past Moore to the player she’d been guarding, to look for another teammate who might be open ahead of her on the other side of the floor, or try to get some type of shot over or past the taller, stronger defender.
Hicks chose the latter, opting for a challenging up-and-under reverse layup try from the far side of the rim. As she leaped while passing by Moore, the surprised Lady Dragon hit the Chillicothe player, prompting a foul call. However, Hicks made Cameron pay an even-heavier price as she perfectly scooped her shot softly and high off the window and through the net on the reverse, not only tying the game, but creating the chance for her team to regain the lead.
When the slender, lanky 10th grader perfectly measured her free-throw attempt, as well, with exactly six minutes on the fourth-quarter clock, Chillicothe was in front, 37-36. It would stay there.
Another of the unusually-soft Cameron giveaways led to Hicks’ rebounding of a teammate’s miss and – fouled again – draining two shots at the charity stripe. When Cameron again mishandled the ball almost a minute later, who else but Hicks was there to grab it near the Cameron foul line and win a race to the other end for a layup.
With seven Hicks markers in a row in less than 90 seconds, the Lady Hornets suddenly had everything going right with a 41-36 lead.
A Cameron three-points play brought the gap down to two at mid-quarter, but, after a brief lull on offense, Chillicothe pounced on the break it needed to create the type of last-minutes scenario it tends to thrive in – running clock and hitting free throws.
Yet another largely-unforced error by Cameron let the ball bounce into Keithley’s grasp on the Lady Dragons’ end. Like Hicks a bit over 1-1/2 minutes earlier, the Chillicothean took the ball the distance for a challenged layup and the margin was multi-possessions at 43-39.
That allowed Smith, following a defensive rebound by his team, to call timeout and institute his de rigueur “free throws-and-layups” offensive strategy for the remaining 2-plus minutes.
Using up time by dribbling and exchanging the ball among themselves way outside, the Lady Hornets carried out the instructions flawlessly. After Cameron fouled a couple of times to get to the limit that would send Chillicothe to the line in the “bonus,” the Lady Hornets had the right answers there.
First, Je. Reeter hit both ends of the “1-and-1” with 1:43 remaining to take the lead to six. When Cameron didn’t score, Keithley was fouled with 1:08 to play. The team’s best free throw shooter coolly earned the bonus shot, but an ill-advised Chillicothe foul as Joseph rebounded the errant second attempt threatened to spark some hope for the Lady Dragons.
However, the Cameron standout could not get the front end of her 1-and-bonus chance to drop and, with Chillicothe rebounding, the Lady Hornets were pretty much home free.
After using up 20 valuable seconds, Hibner was fouled and deposited both of her shots in the bonus through the twine. When Cameron failed to score, Je. Reeter – with the hosts now in the “double bonus” – made one of two for a 10-points lead with only 25 seconds left.
Despite two Joseph triples in the last 20 ticks of the clock, Chillicothe’s girls had more than enough margin to grab their share of the MEC crown.
Statistically, Hibner’s handful of trifectas – two shy of her Chillicothe single-game record – led to her being the game’s top scorer with 19 points, two more than Joseph had for the vanquished Lady Dragons.
Now with 59 “3s” on the season – and 172 for her career, Hibner is within 12 of the Lady Hornets’ season record she set a year ago. With the reasonable expectation of three district-tournament outings and potentially more games beyond that, the senior figures to have a reasonably-good chance of matching or surpassing her existing season standard.
In other noteworthy statistics, Chillicothe sank 13 of its 15 free throws in the last stanza after being four for four before that.
“That’s a good way to finish games,” Smith intentionally understated for effect.
The sizzling 17-of-19 overall performance contrasted with Cameron’s decent 9-of-15. The Lady Hornets also doubled the Lady Dragons’ long-range output eight treys to four.
Cameron gave itself its chance at the upset win by out-rebounding its host 35-26, unofficially, and out-scoring it 8-0 in second-chance points. However, with the sloppy last quarter, the Lady Dragons’ unofficial 17 turnovers to Chillicothe’s season-low five undermined those positives.
“Really proud of the girls,” Smith declared in his post-game remarks. “Really proud of what they battled through tonight to get a win. And (it was the) fourth game of the week, too.”
Just as pre-game expectations that Cameron’s girls – having lost to Chillicothe by only two at Cameron a month earlier – again might give the Lady Hornets a strong challenge were met, the anticipation that the boys’ game would be a major mismatch also was realized – emphatically.
With 6’7” Joe Tullos, a transfer to Chillicothe from Cameron this school year, getting his only start as one of the hosts’ four seniors, the Hornets (19-4, 6-1 conf.) jumped ahead immediately when he tapped the opening jump-ball ahead to Bradley Riley, who fed C.J. Pfaff for a driving deuce from the left side only three seconds in.
A Westley Brandsgaard triple followed on the next Hornets possession, seemingly pointing the home team toward a wire-to-wire victory, but Cameron (6-17, 1-6 conf.) nixed that. Despite being separated by 2-1/2 minutes, trifectas from Ian Riley and Dylan Brosius gave the Dragons a 6-5 lead at the mid-point of the opening period. The rest of the game – at least the next 21 minutes – were not only figuratively, but almost literally, all Hornets.
Following Brosius’ 3-ball, Chillicothe took back the lead for keeps on another We. Brandsgaard trey. Just over a half-minute later, the partisan crowd was whooping and hollering over possibly the signature play of the Hornets’ outstanding season.
From far out on the right wing, junior guard Mason Baxter flipped a perfectly-placed, high-arcing pass just left of the rim to Pfaff, who was racing to the rim unfettered along the left baseline. Rising up to meet the descending sphere, the spindly, high-leaping, 6’4” senior guard caught the ball just below rim height on his way up and, as his momentum carried him forward the next couple of feet as he reached the apex of his leap, Pfaff jammed home a 2-handed dunk for a 10-6 lead.
After Cameron balanced two Hayden Simmer free throws with a Brosius layup, Baxter found the basket from beyond the 3-points stripe in the right corner. Another nicely-executed Cameron play resulted in a cutting layup that left the Dragons still within five points just over six minutes into the MEC contest. However, when next they scored, they were trailing by 24 and a full-fledged rout was on.
Beginning with a Simmer right-corner triple at the 1:43 mark of the opening period, the home team rang up 19 points in succession over a stretch of 4:03 with all of the points except Simmer’s igniting “3” coming from the indomitable senior tandem of Pfaff and We. Brandsgaard.
The  6’3” latter – often a bruiser around the under the rim – put in a basket-and-1, two other deuces, and two free throws, while the former – a glider – twice scored on quick-flick stickbacks before hitting a wide-open, right-wing trey.
“Our guys came out really ready and that’s what good teams do,” Cool commented. “… I thought, defensively, we were just stifling. Just guarded and talked and moved and rebounded.”
After Cameron finally halted the decimating run, Chillicothe calmly tallied 10 of the last 12 points of the first half to go to the locker room in command by 30, 44-14.
Beyond the 7-0 and 19-0 runs of consecutive tallies, over the longer haul, the Hornets obliterated the visiting Dragons 37-6 from the 3:57 mark of the opening frame to the 3:03 mark of the second.
Following the mid-game break, the sides swapped points – highlighted by Tullos’ cherry-picking 1-handed slam off a long Pfaff pass – through the first three minutes of quarter No. 3 before Chillicothe once more took full ownership of the scoring.
“Our guys have really embraced having him in our program,” Cool said of Tullos, whose cousins attended Chillicothe and were sports standouts in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
A bucket each by We. Brandsgaard and Pfaff, Tullos’ well-executed turnaround jumper in the low paint, and four tallies in a row by freshman forward Caden Potter comprised a 10-0 Hornets spurt which put their lead at 40, 60-20, with a minute remaining in the third period.
A free throw from frosh Griff Bonderer to close that quarter and Pfaff’s three-points play on a right-wing drive nine seconds into the fourth set the Chillicothe lead at a game-high 42 points before reserves took over for both sides for the accelerated final five minutes.
Statistically, the home team regained its shooting sharpness from the floor after an uncharacteristic showing in the home win over Kirksville a night earlier. Chillicothe hit 61 percent of its 2-points attempts and 39 percent (seven of 19) from 3-points land.
Individually, Pfaff’s 21 points and We. Brandsgaard’s 19 as usual powered the Hornets’ attack. They also paired for 13 rebounds, with Pfaff adding team-highs of six assists, three steals, and three shot blocks to his Chillicothe-high seven caroms.
The senior pair were a combined 16 of 24 (67 percent) with the shooting from the field, completing the regular season with scoring averages of 20.3 (We. Brandsgaard) and 17.6 points (Pfaff) on composite 55 percent overall accuracy from the field and 41 percent marksmanship outside the arc.
Cameron’s leading scorer was Brosius with 13 points. No other Dragon managed more than four.
Cool credited the many fans in attendance with helping inspire his team.
“That’s two nights in a row, with ‘Jam the Gym’ and ‘Senior Night,’ that our crowd has been fantastic,” he observed, undoubtedly hoping for similar turnouts during the home-floor district games.