As far as opening night goes, Jeni Hopkins gave her team a passing grade.
Buoyed by the home crowd, her Hillcrest Lady Hornets showed lots of promise in downing Central 72-63 on Friday night.
“You open up that first game and you just don’t know what to expect,” Hopkins said. “You do some good things in practice, you do some bad things in practice….being on our home floor helped.”
One of the new weapons for Hopkins is a deep bench, allowing the Lady Hornets to play a hounding full-court defense that forced 30 turnovers by the Lady Bulldogs.
“That is one major thing we have been focusing on in practice,” senior Kristin Todd said. “I think we can be really good if we play as hard as we did tonight.”
Todd sparked the Lady Hornets in the opening half, dropping in 15 of her 17 points in the first two quarters as Hillcrest jumped out to a 46-41 halftime lead.
Central (0-2) was able to stay in it in the first half because it dominated on the boards, pulling down 18 rebounds to just 10 for the Lady Hornets. A late seven-point scoring spree by Savannah Rush allowed the Lady Bulldogs to whittle a 10-point deficit down to just five at the break.
“Central plays hard and they are well-coached,” Hopkins said. “And in the first half, they killed us on the boards. The second half, I think that was the key statistic because we cut their rebounds in half.”
Hillcrest held Central to just four points in the third quarter and closed the period on a 10-2 run to take a 58-45 lead.
In the fourth quarter, a layup by Kelbi Painter and a free throw by Lilly Beam capped a 7-0 run that pushed the Lady Hornets’ lead to 67-52 with 3:09 left. Megan Cornman scored five of her nine points in the final 2:30 to rally the Bulldogs, but it was too little, too late.
“I think we have way more depth than last year,” Hillcrest sophomore Kelsie Cleeton said. “We are young, but we have a lot of players with experience. We’ve really worked hard on our press because our defense really converts (turnovers) to points.
“That was a difference-maker tonight.”
Cleeton, who burst on the scene last year as a freshman, appears to have gotten stronger. She scored a quiet 23 points to lead all scorers, but all of it was within the flow of the offense as the Lady Hornets had a balanced attack. Kelbi Painter scored 10 points while Alexis Cheek and freshman Kaycee Gerald added six points apiece. Brittany Fisher added eight points and seven rebounds for Hillcrest.
“I’m just real proud of this group,” Hopkins said. “They are young, but they play well together and I really like this group a lot.
“Games are mostly won on the strength of the role players and our role players played very well, especially in the second half.”
Leann Cody led Central with 14 points and Rush added 12, including nine in the second quarter. Cornman had 10 rebounds to go along with her nine points.
Hillcrest does not play again until next Thursday in Fayetteville in the Lady Bulldog Classic.
Central plays in the New Covenant Tournament, which begins on Monday.