Jake Hilmer arrived at Wells Fargo Arena early Monday to take in the scene. The North Linn sophomore walked down on the floor and looked up at the lights. He smiled.
For the first time since 1977, he would lead the Lynx out onto the floor in a state tournament game.
“I’ve been down here probably 15 years of my life,” Hilmer said, “and this is the first year I got to walk in without paying for a ticket. Got out on the court, and it was a dream come true.
“But the dream isn’t to lose in the first round, so I’m glad we got that first one.”
Hilmer guided North Linn to a 54-49 win over Maple Valley-Anthon-Oto in the Class 1A quarterfinal round on Monday. The point guard scored a game-high 18 points on 5-for-10 shooting and dished out seven assists. The Lynx will play Gladbrook-Reinbeck in Thursday’s state semifinals.
The stat line was a typical one from Hilmer. He entered this week 254 assists, the most in Iowa by 64. His assist-to-turnover ratio after Monday’s victory is 4-to-1. He’s also scoring 21.5 points per game, helping the Lynx to a 26-0 overall record as one of the state’s three remaining unbeatens.
“He’s a great leader for us,” said Mike Hilmer, North Linn’s coach and Jake’s dad. “When the chips were on the line, he made some great decisions and obviously knocked down his free throws. Proud of the way he played.”
Mike Hilmer said Jake’s progression from last season to this season is part of the reason why North Linn not only reached state, but secured the top seed in 1A. A year ago, The Lynx went 21-2, but lost to Alburnett in the district semifinals.
That loss left the team heartbroken, but it also drove them during the offseason.
“They had a lot of motivation from that,” Mike Hilmer said. “I really attribute (his development) to his offseason stuff with the (AAU Iowa) Barnstormers. He works hard to continue to keep a spot on that team. The coach there does a great job with him and tells him what he needs to work on.
“But one of the biggest things he did for this season was just get stronger. I think he realized as a freshman — and he still has a ways to go — but that really helped him get to the basket and drawing the foul instead of getting it blocked, or getting it stolen.”
All of that growth, along with his increasing basketball knowledge, was on display Monday. In addition to his points and assists, Jake Hilmer added a couple of rebounds and five steals to his final box score. He also produced a couple of memorable moments that put the crowd on their feet.
In the first half, Hilmer dribbled in and around the top of key, and his handle on the basketball made one MVAO defender jump and fall on his behind. Hilmer then drove past him for an easy lay-in.
Then, at the end of the third quarter, Hilmer again crossed a defender through the paint, then pulled up to hit a mid-range jumper at the buzzer to put North Linn up 32-31. The Lynx did not relinquish the lead thereafter.
“I’ve worked a lot on that, and I wouldn’t have even taken that shot last year,” he said. “I had a couple of charges today, but I’ll usually use that pull-up.
“My overall defense has improved a ton since last year, too, and the guys around me have also gotten better, which takes a lot of pressure off me.”
Indeed, North Linn’s defense has allowed less than 40 points per game on the season, thanks to 407 steals, the state’s second-highest mark. On Monday, the Lynx recorded 12 steals, part of an effort that saw them force 19 turnovers against MVAO.
“They’re always right in your face,” MVAO coach Brian Brown said. “They gave us some problems in the first half. We had too many turnovers. They just make it so tough to get into an offense and get into a rhythm.
“They’re No. 1 for a reason.”
And with two more victories, they can leave no doubt.
“Feels nice to get that first win, but we still want two more,” Jake Hilmer said. “Obviously you want to win more, and (on Monday), we found a way to win not playing our best. That’s huge down here.”
Cody Goodwin covers high school sports, college basketball recruiting and Drake athletics for the Des Moines Register. Follow him on Twitter at @codygoodwin.
Thursday’s State Semifinals
Gladbrook-Reinbeck vs. North Linn — 10:30 a.m.
Grand View Christian vs. Remsen St. Mary’s — 12:15 p.m.
Western Christian vs. Camanche — 2 p.m.
Pella Christian vs. Carroll Kuemper — 3:45 p.m.
Waverly-Shell Rock vs. Cedar Rapids Xavier — 6:35 p.m.
West Delaware vs. Sergeant Bluff-Luton — 8:15 p.m.