GILBERT, Ia. — Lessons in sports are sometimes learned the tough way. And for all the hoops knowledge that the South Hamilton boys’ basketball team has acquired over the last couple of years, Friday night taught the Hawks that they can always keep learning.
Gilbert beat South Hamilton, 55-54, in a Heart of Iowa Conference battle at Gilbert High School on Friday night. It was the first loss of the season for the Hawks while the Tigers have now won four of their last five games.
“That was a fun one,” Gilbert coach B.J. Terrones said. “They are such an excellent team. They’re long and fast, so we really worked on trying to find easier passes and get some good looks.”
The Hawks (9-1) entered Friday night’s matchup with Gilbert on a tear. In their previous nine wins, all but two were by double-digits. In the most recent boys’ basketball AP Poll, South Hamilton was tabbed as the No. 6 team in Class 2A, and with it came a proverbial target on its back.
It was a bit of unfamiliar territory for the Hawks. Back in 2014, they reached the state tournament for the first time since 1991, a drought that ended thanks to the stellar play of then-freshman Collin Hill. His 16.8 points per game, along with a slew of veteran talent, helped South Hamilton to a 21-4 record that season.
But before the 2014-15 season even began, Hill broke his leg during a football game. Without him, South Hamilton stumbled to a 6-16 season. That year allowed his teammates to grow without him, but Hill lost the chance to build on that stellar freshman campaign.
He returned last year with newfound motivation — the scar from his broken leg stretches a few inches on his right ankle. He sees it every morning when he puts on his socks. He led the Hawks to a 14-10 record and the substate final. They lost to Dike-New Hartford, but the foundation had been laid for a run this season.
In addition to dominating its first nine opponents, South Hamilton had developed its identity. The offense ran through Hill, who averages 22 points per game. He received help from junior Marco Balderas and his younger brother Conner, who chipped in 11.1 and 9.9 points per game, respectively.
The production spanned even further still. Four South Hamilton players entered Friday night with 30 or more rebounds; three had totaled 30 or more assists; and another three recorded 20 or more steals. The game plan was simple — play loose, freely and don’t think, just react.
The always-competitive Gilbert (7-3) knew that plan well. Terrones had coached South Hamilton to its 2014 state berth before becoming the Tigers’ coach ahead of the 2014-15 season. He was aware of the talent he was up against, and made it a point to make them think.
“We were just trying to limit the easy looks,” Terrones said. “We wanted to get them to shoot off the bounce, or just to always have someone consistently put a hand in their faces. We knew we weren’t going to stop them from scoring, but we knew they were going to get some good looks.
“We just wanted to limit that.”
That proved to be difficult early on, as South Hamilton jumped out to a 20-14 lead after the first quarter. Conner Hill clanked home an early three on his way to eight first-quarter points, while Collin Hill added eight himself despite missing his first three shots. He would finish with 17.
The Tigers cracked open a 13-4 run to begin the second quarter, leading to a 32-30 halftime lead. Gilbert leaned on the long ball all night, making seven total en route to a 46-41 lead entering the third quarter.
“You have to give them credit,” South Hamilton coach Nathan Hill said. “They were ready, especially in that first half. They were beating us to loose balls and were beating us down the court. We had guys thinking a lot versus just reacting.
“This is probably the first big-atmosphere game that we’ve had. Sometimes you have to experience a game like this to bring you back down to reality a little bit. They exposed some things that we have to get better at.”
Trailing by six with 6 minutes to play, South Hamilton charged back to tie it at 51 behind a pair of Conner Hill three’s and an old-fashioned 3-point play from Logan Peters. Another Conner Hill triple gave the Hawks the lead at 54-53. He finished with a team-high 21.
With less than 30 seconds left, Gilbert had the ball. Will Turner, who finished with 12 points, passed to Steven Lawrence, who finished with 10. Lawrence then dished into the lane to Matt Barragy, who scored seven — though the two most important points came on the layup after Lawrence’s pass.
South Hamilton drew up a play for Collin Hill on the ensuing possession, but his 3-point shot from the top of the key clanked off the rim. The Gilbert fan base exploded as the Hawks quickly filed into the locker room, where they talked of how to learn and grow from this tough lesson.
“We can look at this one of several ways,” Nathan Hill said. “You can look at it and make excuses, or you look at it and say, ‘Look, the better team won tonight. We got outplayed. Now, what do we do to make sure we’re ready to go?’ Those are the things we need to work out.
“I had never felt that we had some pressure on us, but maybe we did a little bit. We’ve been getting more press. Everybody responds differently, but sure, this could relieve us a little bit. The only thing that matters now is the next game.”
The next game for the Hawks is no doubt a tough one, as they hit the road to play Gladbrook-Reinbeck, the second-ranked team in 1A. It’ll be a chance for South Hamilton to show they can not only learn the tough lessons, but grow from them, too.
Cody Goodwin covers high school sports, college basketball recruiting and Drake athletics for the Des Moines Register. Reach him at (816) 582-0633, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org , or send him a tweet at @codygoodwin .