The Hillcrest Hornets took a 50-36 win over Cassville in Class 4 sectional play at Joplin on Wednesday night. Dorial Green-Beckham, Hillcrest's legitimate superstar, scored 25 points, including 10 of his team's 11 points in the fourth quarter.
For the 2010 Class 5 state champion Hornets, this was supposed to be a tuneup for the high-stakes games down the line in Columbia. But Cassville's Trenton Dickinson prepared for this game like no other, and the Wildcats fought toe-to-toe for nearly three complete periods before the Hornets and Green-Beckham could assert themselves in the late going.
Chris Smith shocked Hillcrest immediately, nailing a left-wing trey to give the 'Cats the early 3-0 lead. Then Josh Lewright attacked in the post, whirling a layup past Green-Beckham for a 5-3 Cassville lead.
But as Jim Croce's classic song warns, "Don't tug on Superman's cape."
Green-Beckham responded with a crushing dunk worthy of an ESPN Top 10 look to tie the game at 5-5 with 4:49 left in the first period. Hillcrest's Howard Williams followed with a fast break score to give the Hornets their first lead of the game.
Lewright hit a soft floater on an inbounds feed from Ricky Nichols, and Evan Stubblefield nailed a jumper from the free-throw line to put Cassville back in front, 9-8. With Trenton Dickinson directing traffic from the sideline, the Wildcats ran most of the final minute of the quarter off the clock, and Smith threw in a line drive jumper from 16 feet at the buzzer.
Cassville held a remarkable 11-8 lead at the first break.
Dickinson's game strategy was a blend of what Hillcrest's opponents had tried all year. Offensive patience, avoiding turnovers and double-teaming the big guy to try to make someone else from Hillcrest beat you. The Hornets had seen it all before, but few teams executed the plan as well as Cassville did in that one quarter of play.
On the Hillcrest bench, Coach Jon Schaefer realized he had a real game on his hands when Cassville rushed to a 16-11 lead to start the second period. Stubblefield swished another jumper, and Axl Larson popped loose for a corner trey to give the Wildcats the five-point bulge.
Green-Beckham scored in the post and finished the three-point play at the line to pull Hillcrest within 16-14 with 5:55 to play in the half. Moments later, camera flashes exploded around the court as the Hornets' star flew to a one-handed jam on a solo steal and score.
Hillcrest would finish the half on a 12-2 run, blemished only by Joel Maher's baby hook in the final minute. Cassville went from five up to five down during the run, and Hillcrest owned a 23-18 lead at halftime.
In the second half, Hillcrest ratcheted their defensive pressure to a new level. The tiring Wildcats expended precious energy on every possession just trying to advance and pass the ball. Maher scored twice early in the third quarter on well-designed plays that lured the Hillcrest center away from the rim. But the Hornet lead grew to 35-22 when Green-Beckham dropped in a short jumper with 3:54 left in the period.
Lewright brought Cassville back with a determined fast break conversion, and then Larson nailed another trey to cut the lead to 37-27. Lewright took a lob from Nichols and scored in the paint to cut the lead to single digits, but a pair of Luke Thompson free throws put Hillcrest in front by 39-29 at the final break.
In the final period of play, the Hornets unveiled a new level of defensive intensity. Trailing by 10, Cassville needed to shoot, wanted to shoot, but the fierce pressure of Hillcrest, especially on the perimeter, allowed no separation for the Cassville gunners. The Wildcats took only two shots in the first six minutes of the fourth, one of those a Nichols layup following a steal at half court.
Green-Beckham took over on offense for Hillcrest, scoring four buckets and a pair of free throws as the lead gapped to 47-31.
Maher rotated out of the paint to hit a trey from the left corner with 1:12 left, and Hillcrest's Joel Lewallen closed the scorebook with a late free throw to set the final score at 50-36.
As Cassville's dream season ticked away in the Leggett & Platt Athletic Center at Joplin's Missouri Southern State University, the Wildcat Nation stood and applauded the players and coaches for a valiant effort. The cavernous arena remained abuzz long after the game as players, families and fans reflected on a game that just wouldn't go Cassville's way.
"Our kids were not scared, and they expected to win," said Cassville's Trenton Dickinson. "We played very hard, executed a game plan, and we just came up a little short. I could not be prouder of the effort our kids gave. They represented themselves, the school and the community well."
The coach ticked off the season positives as well.
"The season speaks for itself," he said. "Two tournament championships, the first winning season in 13 years, our first district championship in 27 years, and the second most wins in the history of the school. From 5-20 to 17-10, these kids have come so far and they deserve the success."
Cassville scorers: Joel Maher, 9; Josh Lewright, 8; Axl Larson, 6; Evan Stubblefield, 6; Chris Smith, 5; and Ricky Nichols, 2.
Hillcrest scorers: Dorial Green-Beckham, 25; Byron Williams, 11; Luke Thompson, 7; Austin Petry, 3; Morgan Ruiz, 3; and Joel Lewallen, 1.