LA CROSSE— The ultimate goal was big, and rightfully so.
Curt Hildreth’s Tigers had their hearts set on a return to the WIAA Division 5 state tournament after reaching the D5 title game a year ago. But this year’s dream will go unfulfilled.
Scenic Bluffs Conference rival Bangor put an end to top-ranked Hillsboro’s season with a 63–60 victory in a Division 5 La Crosse Central Sectional semifinal last Thursday night.
“This was obviously a very difficult loss first and foremost for our kids,” said Hildreth, who has led the Tigers to a 44-9 record in his two seasons as head coach. “These seniors have put so much time and effort, so much work into the last two years. It’s never easy to come up short like we did Thursday night, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. I am so proud of our kids regardless of the outcome of one game.”
Sophomore Caleb Miedema converted a three-point play with 30 seconds left to give Bangor, ranked eighth in Division 5, a 62–60 lead.
After a Hillsboro miss, sophomore Luke Reader made 1 of 2 from the line to extend the Cardinals’ lead to three with 13 seconds remaining.
Hildreth called a timeout to set up one final play, but Bangor defended it well and Hillsboro senior Max Stockwell was forced to take a contested three-pointer from the left wing with time running down, and Ethan Thorson’s putback attempt at the buzzer — though it wouldn’t have been enough to force overtime — rimmed out as well.
“We called timeout and set up a play to get Joe [Helgerson] a [three-point] shot in the corner and if Joe wasn’t open we were hoping someone would slip open, but it just didn’t work out,” explained Hildreth. “Max ended up with the ball as time was running out and it was a shot he had to take. It came up just short.”
Hillsboro dominated much of the first half and even held a 10-point lead at 33–23 with two minutes left in the first half while Stockwell and fellow seniors Hunter Stanek and Sawyer Hynek each had two fouls.
But the Cardinals closed the half on a 9–0 run to pull within a point at intermission.
“We did a good job to build the lead early, but we took some hurried shots in the final two minutes where we could have worked the ball more and looked for a better shot and went into the half with a bigger lead,” said Hildreth. “I think that was a big turning point in the game.”
Bangor took a 38–35 early in the second half on a reverse layup by senior Kellen Kravik.
Hillsboro regained it briefly at 45–44, but senior Jack Reader’s three-point play put the Cardinals back in front at 47–45 with 14 minutes to play.
Thorson’s slashing layup with five minutes left put Hillsboro up one, as the lead changed hands once again.
Luke Reader’s layup with two minutes left gave Bangor a three-point advantage at 59–56.
Hillsboro answered with baskets on back-to-back possessions and regained the lead at 60–59 on Tyler Crandall’s layup with 45 seconds to play.
On the ensuing possession, Bangor’s Drew Johnson drove into the lane and dropped a pass to Miedema for the go-ahead layup.
“I liked the position we were in, up one with a few fouls to give, but it just didn’t work out for us,” said Hildreth. “We tried to give up the foul on Johnson, but he got in the lane and found a teammate for the layup. That was a tough play.”
Helgerson finished with a team-high 14 points, four assists and two rebounds to lead the Tigers. Stockwell added 10 points, 11 rebounds and five steals despite battling foul trouble much of the game.
Thorson scored 13 points and had six rebounds in his final game. Stanek finished with 12 points and seven boards.
Hillsboro finished the year 24–2 overall after going unbeaten in the SBC at 14–0.
Luke Reader finished with a game-high 21 points, eight rebounds and four assists to lead the Cardinals. Jack Reader added 12 points and nine boards.
Bangor (23–4) advanced to Saturday’s sectional final, but was eliminated with a 57–55 loss to Barneveld (23–4).
Saturday’s loss snapped the Tigers’ 12-game winning streak and ended the careers of Stockwell, Helgerson, Thorson, Stanek, Tommy Crandall, Tyler Crandall, Sawyer Hynek, Ben Mayberry, Adrian Marquez and Skyler Fisher.
“Those seniors have obviously been terrific for the past two years,” said Hildreth. “To win a conference championship was one of our big goals and we did that. We also won a regional title in a very good region. We fell short Thursday of our goal or returning to state, but getting to state is not an easy thing to do, especially in a one-game situation like the tournament.”
Over the past two seasons Hillsboro has gone 44-9 overall, 26–2 in the SBC, while winning a pair of regional titles, the 2016 SBC crown and a 2015 Division 5 state runner-up trophy.
“I told the guys to take pride in the things they have accomplished over the past two years and not dwell on the one loss,” said Hildreth. “They might not appreciate it now because Thursday’s loss still hurts so much, but one day they will look back and reflect on what they were able to do. It really was a special run.”