LA CROSSE – Win or lose, Hillsboro’s dream season will culminate at the WIAA state tournament on the Kohl Center floor in Madison.
The eighth-ranked Tigers used a 15–1 third-quarter run to pull away from fourth-ranked Shullsburg and earn Hillsboro’s first trip to the WIAA state tournament with a 48–35 WIAA Division 5 sectional final at La Crosse Logan High School on Saturday night.
“I’m obviously very proud of all the kids,” said first-year Hillsboro head coach Curt Hildreth. “They have done such a great job all season, especially during the tournament run, buying into what we are telling them and doing all the little things they need to do to play winning basketball.
“Coming into this year we had very big expectations and we were able to go out an achieve them, which is a very good feeling. I’m just so proud of the guys.”
Hillsboro (22–5) will now face Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran (16–11) in the second D5 state semifinal at approximately 3:15 p.m. following the other semifinal between Washburn (25–2) and Young Coggs Prep (19–5).
Green Bay N.E.W. Lutheran makes its third straight appearance in the state tournament and its fifth overall. The Blazers have finished runner-up the past two seasons.
Lutheran is led by 6–3 senior guard/forward Noah Gosse, who averages 17.8 points, 9.3 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game.
Hillsboro shoots down Shullsburg
Early on in Saturday’s sectional final, it looked bleak for Hillsboro. The Tigers committed turnovers on four of their first five possessions and the Miners (24–3) and their 6-foot-8 sophomore center Joey Meyer dominating the paint.
Shullsburg went to their lanky pivot man over and over again early in the first quarter and Meyer answered scoring seven of his team-high 12 points in the opening minutes of the game.
Sophomore guard Noah Wand buried the first of his two 3-pointers to put Shullsburg ahead 12–6 with 3:01 remaining in the opening quarter.
But Hildreth’s Tigers (22–5) countered with two baskets each from juniors Max Stockwell and Tommy Crandall to grab a 14–12 lead.
A free throw by Meyer and a late basket by senior Brant Gille allowed the Miners to regain a 15–14 heading into the second quarter.
“We struggled with Meyer early on, and Shullsburg kept going to him,” said Hildreth. “But we were able to contain him for the most part the rest of the way.”
After committing six of their 12 turnovers in the first quarter, the Tigers cut down on the miscues, picked up their defensive intensity and starting making things difficult for the Miners.
Back-to-back baskets by Stockwell to open the second quarter put Hillsboro ahead 18–15, but Wand drilled a three for the Miners’ only points of the period midway through the quarter to tie the score at 18.
Junior Hunter Stanek and Stockwell closed the half with baskets as the Tigers went into halftime with a four-point lead, 22–18.
“There were times I felt we were trying to do things too quick,” said Shullsburg coach Mark Lierman. “That’s the most turnovers we’ve had all year. We were trying to do things on the first pass instead of working the ball around,” said Lierman after his team committed eight of their 18 turnovers in the first half. “Maybe that’s a credit to (Hillsboro) and maybe that’s a credit to the stage we’re on. These guys haven’t been on this stage in their careers.”
The Miners fought back to tie the score at 24–24 early in the third quarter on a basket by sophomore guard Lance Lierman, and then they took the lead following a technical foul called on Stockwell on a tie-up with a Shullsburg player under the Hillsboro basket.
Senior point guard Brett Matye hit one of the two free throws to put the Miners ahead, and his brother, sophomore forward Hunter Matye, added a basket on the ensuing possession to give Shullsburg a 27–24 with 6:08 to play in the third.
However, Stockwell turn the technical foul call into a source of personal motivation and used it to fire up the Tigers. The junior hit a free throw and sank back-to-back treys, one from 25-feet out at the top of the key, to put Hillsboro back on top to stay.
Junior point guard Joey Helgerson added a pair of threes of his own, including a clutch step-back triple just before the buzzer, to lift the Tigers out to a 39–28 advantage.
“That run was huge,” said Hildreth. “We were playing such good defense after the first quarter that I thought we needed just one run offensively to take control of the game. We had such a belief that we weren’t going to give up the lead at that point.”
But as the Hillsboro fans cheered wildly and the Tigers erupted with emotion coming off the court after Helgerson’s second triple, Hildreth implored his team to focus and finish.
“I was trying to calm everybody down because the game wasn’t over at that point,” said Hildreth of the timeout between the third and fourth quarters. “We had done a nice job getting in position to win, but we had to finish it and make good decisions with the ball, box out and rebound. The only way we were going to lose at that point was by having breakdowns defensively.”
“We had four or five empty possessions and we had some foul trouble,” said Lierman. “Then, they hit some shots, some deep shots. You have to give them credit for hitting those shots.”
Meyer scored his first points since the first quarter on a basket in the paint to open the fourth quarter to bring the Miners back within nine, but the Tigers ran off the next seven points on a pair of baskets by senior center Avery Rueckheim and a 3-ball by junior Tyler Crandall to build up a 46–30 cushion with just over three minutes to play.
The Miners got no closer than 13 the rest of the way as the teams began to clear their benches.
Stockwell finished with a game-high 21 points on a near-perfect 9 of 10 from the field and 7 of 8 from the free throw line. He also grabbed six rebounds and had two steals.
Helgerson added 10 points, two rebounds and four assists, while Tommy Crandall and Rueckheim chipped in with six apiece.
“Max was terrific on Saturday night,” said Hildreth. “Tommy Crandall held Hunter Matye to just two points, Avery and Hunter did a nice job limiting Meyer in the final three quarters and Joey was Joey, running the offense, distributing the ball and getting us out on the break when we could.”
Meyer led Shullsburg with 12 points. Brett Matye scored eight of his 10 points in the second half, while Wand scored all six of his points in the first half.
Tigers bounce Gilmanton in sectional semifinal
Hillsboro advanced to Saturday’s sectional final by defeating Gilmanton 61–47 in a D5 sectional semifinal at La Crosse Central High School on Thursday night.
Stockwell scored a game-high 21 points and grabbed seven rebounds.
Rueckheim added 12 points on a perfect 6 for 6 from the field and grabbed seven boards. Tommy Crandall added 10 points and seven rebounds, while Helgerson finished with eight points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Crandall also limited Gilmanton’s leading scorer Devin Oesau to just 10 points.
Hillsboro used a 15–9 second-quarter run to build a 30–20 halftime lead.
Gilmanton (18–6) upset second-ranked Bangor (21–3) in the regional finals, 52–51, on March 7.
Bangor, which won the SBC title with a perfect 14–0 mark in league play, beat Hillsboro twice during the regular season.
“We didn’t care either way,” said Hildreth of dodging a potential rematch with the Cardinals in the sectional semis. “I was actually rooting for Bangor. I wanted that matchup. But we got Gilmanton. Our kids had the mind set that that’s who got put in front of us, so that’s who we are going through to get where we want to be.”