The Hillcrest Hornets had a tall mountain to climb in the opening round of the Bass Pro Tournament of Champions. But that’s really nothing new to the Hornets.
“Everybody we play is a lot bigger than us,” senior guard Austin Petry said. “Maybe not that big, but their size wasn’t the difference.”
The diminutive Hornets — whose tallest starter is Roy Hardy at 6-foot-2 — succumbed more to the defensive pressure than the size of Fairfax (Va.) Paul VI in a 69-49 opening-round loss Thursday at JQH Arena. The Panthers boasted a 6-8, 6-6, 6-7 frontcourt.
“We expected them to be really good and they were,” Petry said. “They played pretty good pressure defense, but it was something we should have been able to handle. For whatever reason, we didn’t.”
The first quarter had all the makings of that rare local first-round upset. Hillcrest opened on a 9-0 run with treys from Thomas Whittaker and Roy Hardy as the lethargic Panthers looked like the lengthy travel had taken a toll.
But that’s when Petry — Hillcrest’s emotional leader coming off a tourney MVP performance in Lindbergh last weekend — had to leave with a twisted ankle. Six straight misses later and the Hornets had allowed Paul VI to cut the defict to 14-10 after one quarter.
“We came out after a timeout and everyone just kind of got their heads back in it and started playing good basketball,” Paul VI sophomore point guard Kevin Dorsey said. “Coach (Greg Farello) told us to pick up the defense because that’s what was going to win the game for us.
“We knew they were scrappy and could shoot the lights out.”
But just the opposite happened. It was the Panthers who couldn’t miss and the Hornets struggled to make shots. Paul VI (11-4) closed the first half on a 13-2 run as Hillcrest (11-4) shot just 26.1 percent in the half and found itself trailing 30-23 at the break.
“Basketball coaches often talk about the first four minutes of the second half being key, but for this game, in this type of environment, to get that separation was huge for us,” Farello said. “We got some defensive stops and the kids buckled down. It was, to be able to take a deep breath, because of how frustrated we were with playing so poorly at the beginning.”
The Panthers blew it open in the third quarter with a 12-2 run to open a 42-25 lead with three minutes left in the period. The Hornets’ shooting woes continued as they went a six-minute stretch without a field goal.
“Austin going out when he did kind of threw a wrench into things and got us on our heels and when we got him back we didn’t respond very well,” Hillcrest coach John Schaefer said. “That being said, when we started to get things back I think they got their second wind and started doing some things to hurt.
“Defensively they are pretty tough and as physical as it is, you try to get out of it and that causes turnovers.”
Sophomore Franklin Howard led Paul VI with 15 points and Dorsey added 14, including three key buckets during the second-quarter comeback. The Panthers advance to today’s 7:30 p.m. semifinal against St. John Bosco.
Whittaker scored 14 and Petry added 11 to lead Hillcrest, which struggled to just 32 percent shooting on the night.
“We’re pretty good when it comes to rebounding off a loss like that,” said Petry, who will lead the Hornets against Prestonwood Christian (Tex.) at 4:30 today. “We are not the type of team to lay down like that.”