6:30 p.m. Class 3 state basketball tournament clash at Moberly is rematch of December game MHS won by 15

By PAUL STURM, C-T Sports Editor

CHILLICOTHE, Mo.  When Chillicothe High School’s basketball Lady Hornets faced Trenton for the Class 3 District 14 tournament championship last Saturday, it was a rematch against a foe they had crushed by 29 points in mid-December.

Given that they played from behind for a substantial portion of the second meeting before posting a 6-points victory over THS this past weekend, the Lady Hornets (20-7) enter tonight’s Class 3 state tournament sectional (first-round) rematch with Macon (22-4) with first-hand understanding that an early-season outcome carries little or no meaning, come postseason play.

Four mid-December nights after the CHS girls doubled Trenton, in the very early stages of a major strategic adjustment, they traveled an hour to Macon and, after a very slow start and strong recovery, came back 67-52 losers.

“We went to their place and it was two or three games after we changed styles (from a higher-tempo, full-court approach freely using 10 players to a more-controlled pace in which only seven or eight players were utilized regularly) and the big thing for me was trying to get us to figure out what we were doing,” recalls Darren Smith, CHS sixth-year head coach.

“I think we’re a lot better now than we were at that point, playing this style.”

Attempted against a strong squad on its way to a 19-4 regular-season record, the Lady Hornets’ transitioning approach in the Dec. 17 contest at Macon made them vulnerable to a significant struggle, and that’s just what they had.

After being within 7-5 a few minutes into the contest, Chillicothe went south offensively and defensively. From midway through the first quarter through early in the second, the Tigerettes scored 15 of the game’s 17 points to secure a 22-7 lead.

To their credit, the Lady Hornets, showing grit they’d go on to display many times during a regular season filled with very good opponents, didn’t – in hockey parlance, “turtle” – curl up in a fetal position and accept a whipping.

Instead, they battled back within six points twice before halftime, within five in the middle of the third stanza, and finally – after an 11-3 MHS surge had created a 48-35 separation after three quarters – within 50-46 barely 2½ minutes into the fourth on Jordan Hibner’s three free throws and four-points play and a pair of Hunter Keithley deuces.

“We had it within four halfway through that fourth (quarter),” Smith remembered off the top of his head with perfect accuracy during a broadcast interview after last Saturday’s district-title game, “… and then the wheels fell off.”

On the evening of the game at Macon, he’d opined, “I just thought we had to exert so much energy (coming back) that we just wore down at the end.”

Following Hibner’s successful “and-1” on her fourth of six trifectas that night, coach Richard Driscoll’s Tigerettes netted the next seven points and later tallied the game’s last eight to essentially double their winning margin in the last two minutes.

In its immediate aftermath, noting succinctly, “we can’t give up (67) points,” Smith assessed, “It was a physical game and we didn’t handle that physicality as well as I would have liked to have seen us.”

With an additional 2½ months of toughening, Chillicothe’s girls will have a chance to do to Macon what Trenton did to it – take the game into the final minutes or seconds with the outcome in doubt.

“It’s postseason basketball and anything can happen,” Smith reminds.

In terms of personnel, Macon obviously will be ready with a defensive game plan aimed at controlling Hibner – CHS’ game, season, and career record-holder for 3-pointers, while also accounting for senior classmate Keithley, who scored 10 at Macon.

“Chillicothe is very hard to defend,” Driscoll commented for the C-T Monday. “We will have to be very solid on the defensive end of the floor”

A key for Chillicothe’s chances tonight, beyond slowing down a diverse Macon attack that had four dual-digits scorers in the December meeting, will be getting significant scoring from others besides its senior duo.

Sophomore forward Essie Hicks has filled that bill very well of late, including having a team-topping 15 points in both the victory over Trenton and the prior one against Carrollton.

Over the last dozen Lady Hornets games, she’s averaging just over 10 points a contest (even with one scoreless game mixed in), including a 22-points outing. More recently, she’s averaged almost 12 points a game in the last four.

However, often in postseason play, when quality opponents tend to limit damage from a usual top scorer or two through game planning, a fourth scorer stepping forward significantly (or multiple sources combining to generate 15-plus points) often can spell the difference between going on or going home.

If the Lady Hornets can get a composite 38-40 points from the Keithley-Hibner-Hicks trio, another 15 from the likes of starters Brooke Horton and Jessica Reeter (combined average just under 13) and main reserves Selby Miller and Lucy Reeter would put them around the mid 50s where Smith obviously hopes Macon’s maximum would be.

Horton and Je. Reeter both have had some big-scoring games against quality competition, but have been inconsistent on offense. If either approaches her ceiling – or both do, it would bode well for CHS. For reference, they had a combined 12 against Macon the first time, a contest in which Hicks netted only three.

“We’re going to have to battle our tails off defensively, we’re going to have to make some shots, and we’re going to have to rebound the basketball,” Smith sums up the keys for his team to succeed.

As for Macon, while it had four players with 13 or more points in the December game against Chillicothe, for the season it has two – active sophomore forward Lexi Miller (15.8) and junior guard Kate Hawkins (14.2) – averaging in twin figures. That contrasts with Lady Hornets leader Keithley netting only 12.9 a night.

In the first meeting, junior guard Tierra Wood added 13 points and senior guard Katie Richardson 14 to Miller’s 23 and Hawkins’ 13. For the year, Richardson averages 7.8 points and Wood 6.5.

Against CHS, both Miller and Richardson took and hit two treys, while the rest of the team was a combined one of eight. For the season, only two of MHS’ top players are making over 33 percent from beyond the arc, as compared to three Lady Hornets starters being at 37 percent or above – led by Hibner’s 45 percent – and a top reserve shoots 34 percent.

Chillicothe’s challenge in trying to exploit that advantage will be generating good perimeter looks and being ready and willing to take them quickly, rather than hesitate. That proved to be a problem against Trenton.

Based on the teams’ December meeting, each would seem to have a “wild card” – a player who didn’t impact that game much, but has come on.

For Chillicothe, that’s Hicks, who’ll be needed to continue to provide mid- and short-range scoring that can help create more 3-points-shooting space.

For Macon, it also is a sophomore Shelby Petre, a starter who scored only two points in her team’s December win, but who now averages 7.6 points for the season. She’s the inside-oriented Tigerettes’ leader in 3-pointers with 36 (34 percent), barely half Hibner’s total and four less than CHS frosh Je. Reeter.

Beyond scoring, a couple of key areas to keep in mind are rebounding and ball security.

Macon is averaging more than six boards a game more than Chillicothe (29-23) with Hawkins having had a handful of points-rebounds double-doubles on the season.

MHS also averages making almost 10 steals a game, compared to CHS’ 6.3. The squads’ turnover rates are virtually identical at around 15 a game.

In terms of team shooting percentages, Chillicothe has the advantage outside the arc – 38-32 – and at the foul line – 74-64. Macon is better on deuces – 50-45 percent.

Whichever team wins tonight, it will advance to Saturday’s 1 p.m. state quarterfinal at Blue Springs High School, facing the survivor of tonight’s Maryville-KC: St. Michael the Archangel clash.