Toppers Slip Past Oilers To Earn Shot At Carlinville Title

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Based on the evidence prior to the last Red Pool game at the Carlinville Holiday Tournament, the outcome for Hillsboro appeared iffy. 

Both teams were 2-0 entering the game on December 29, which meant the winner would play for the championship in the tournament the next evening. It was the third game in three days for each team, which usually benefits the team with the deeper depth; physically, that was the East Alton Wood River (EAWR) Oilers. Finally, Topper guard Drake Vogel hobbled into the gym on crutches; that didn’t bode well for the Toppers.

Hillsboro sophomore Jace Stewart was given his first varsity start as Vogel’s replacement; usually he’s the first Topper off the bench, which meant the reserve corps was deleted. 

In the end, all of the negatives became a positive as a strong defensive effort sent Hillsboro into the championship game against Litchfield Thursday evening with a 63-56 win, but it wasn’t clinched until the final two minutes.

The Oilers brought multiple weapons to the fray; Antonio Hardin is a 5’10” senior (the only senior on the roster) who was effective from long range and quick defensively; Brayden St. Peters is a physical 6’4” junior who came off the bench to sink a trey on his first shot (the Toppers have no one that tall on their roster), and a shooting guard, Seth Slayden. Those three reached double figure, with Hardin tallying 24.

In addition, the Oilers have enough depth to substitute four people at a time - one group when defense was needed, another for offense when they possessed the ball. That strategy prevailed when they rallied in the fourth quarter. That rally was needed because at least three Topper starters had outstanding games in the first three quarters.

Will Christian had six points and tough defensive assignments in the first quarter, which the Toppers led 15-7 until the Oilers exploded for eight consecutive points, forging a 15-15 tie. One of Christian’s buckets came off a Blaze Helton pass as Christian cut to the basket.

A St. Peters basket gave his team the lead as the second quarter opened; momentum was theirs. Jace Stewart’s three tied it; Deklan Riggs put the Toppers ahead with a rebound basket. St. Peters tallied an old-time three; Stewart flipped the lead again with a lay-up to put the Toppers ahead 24-23. Slayden scored; then Riggs swished a three from deep in his right corner. EAWR never regained the lead.

Helton went on a streak of his own, scoring six consecutive points; when Riggs added a basket, Hillsboro led 36-17. EAWR scored the last four points of the half, but it seemed too little, too late.

Christian and steady Gavin Matoush helped extend the lead in the third quarter by scoring seven points each. Everyone who played for the Toppers, including Bryce Connor and Riggs, executed good man to man defense to limit everyone but Hardin to five points. 

Hardin, who had seven in the first half, had eight in the third period; still, the Toppers held a 54-44 lead entering the last quarter.

A Blaine Stewart field goal upped that lead to 12; Slayden contributed one of two free throws (EAWR was 11 of 12 from the line) with 6:28 to play, and the Oilers took a full time-out. When they emerged from their chat, they applied full-court defensive pressure. That was the strategy that enabled them to come back to defeat Gillespie Tuesday afternoon.

The Oiler quickness caused the Toppers problems for the next three minutes; EAWR trailed only 58-53 before Christian broke free for a lay-up.

Matoush scored while being fouled as order was restored (the Toppers were nine of 11 from the line). The lead was nine with 59 seconds left; Hillsboro had its composure back as well as a date with Litchfield at 7:30 p.m. Thursday despite two more Hardin late free throws.

Both teams were amazing from the free throw line; Hillsboro shot 82% from there; while EAWR was 92%. EAWR also won the battle of the boards (rebounding); often the Hillsboro coaches were exhorting their charges to rebound better. Matoush with 10 did his part, but especially in the early going the Oilers had the advantage; Hillsboro claimed only five offensive boards.

For the third consecutive game, though, Hillsboro shot well -- 64% from inside, 33% from behind the arc. For the game, Hillsboro shot 56% from the field. Christian had the best percentage (71%); Matoush was 60%, while Helton and Riggs each had 50%. Connor made the only shot he took. Christian (5) and Jace Stewart (4) had the majority of Hillsboro’s 14 assists, while Helton had four of the Toppers’ 8 assists.

Dec. 29 at Carlinville

Carlinville Holiday Tournament

Hillsboro 15 21 18 9 63

EAWR 15 16 13 12 56

Hillsboro (63) - Will Christian 17, Gavin Matoush 14, Blaze Helton 11, Deklan Riggs 7, Jace Stewart 7, Blaine Stewart 5, Bryce Connor 2. Totals: 25-45 9-11 63.

East Alton-Wood River (56) - Antonio Hardin 24, Seth Slayden 12, Brayden St. Peters 11, Zach Lybarger 4, Lucas Moore 3, Jacob Gerber 2. Totals: 19 11-12 56.

Three-point field goals: Hillsboro 4 (Christian 1, B. Stewart 1, J. Stewart 1, Riggs 1); East Alton-Wood River 7 (Hardin 3, St. Peters 2, Slayden 1, Moore 1).

Records: Hillsboro (8-6); East Alton-Wood River (4-7).

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