WEST — Familiarity doesn’t always breed contempt. Sometimes it generates respect.
Connally and Hillsboro respected the heck out of each other. Both knew the other had a good team. Their previous battles in district play stood as a testament to that. And those two delivered a more-than-respectable effort in this third meeting.
Ultimately, Connally made a handful more plays in the waning moments to secure an 80-75 overtime victory over Hillsboro in the Region III-4A quarterfinals on Tuesday night before a near-capacity crowd at West High School. By doing so, the Cadets (26-7) will return to the regional tournament in Huntsville for a second straight season.
“Man, it feels great. It’s awesome, especially getting the opportunity to go back-to-back,” Connally coach Quinton Snell said. “Then with such a young team, I’m just really proud of them for staying together, taking care of business. I’m just excited to be back again, one more time.”
Despite a pair of wins over the Eagles (24-13) to their credit entering the night, Snell didn’t feel any type of peace over the matchup. The veteran coach is plenty acclimated with how hard it is to defeat a team – especially a tough-minded, talented team like the Eagles – three times in a season.
“No, we weren’t comfortable at all,” Snell said. “It’s really difficult. We knew they were going to have a plan for us, because they always do. Coach (Courtney) Hewitt does a great job with those guys. They play hard, they got after us, and hat’s off to our dudes. We had to step up to the challenge, and we did.”
Jamal Long stars at football and basketball for Hillsboro, but on this night he was like a one-man powerlifting team. He did everything he could in trying to carry the Eagles to the next round, leading everyone with 29 points and 14 rebounds.
“Jamal Long, that kid right there, he’s going to go hard on both sides of the ball,” Hillsboro’s Hewitt said. “He never gives up. He barely gets a break, he and Courtney (Hewitt Jr.). I’ve got to keep them in, because they’re our workhorses. What I do is train them. They’ve got to run a mile every day, and those guys are our top two every time. That’s what they were built for, that’s what they train for, situations like this one.”
Like a trio of FedEx deliverymen, Hewitt Jr., Long and fellow senior D’Iverson Dowell delivered the Eagles right to the doorstep of a potential upset win. Trailing by seven points entering the fourth quarter, Hillsboro surged back to take a 69-67 lead with 1:26 to play when Dowell drew a foul on a Euro-step drive and knocked down one of two free throws.
Connally’s blur of a senior guard Zailin Cleveland zipped downcourt to tie the score at 69, but Hillsboro still had a great shot to close it out at the end.
How great? Well, the Eagles called timeout with 14 seconds remaining to set up their final play. They kept the ball moving and had Connally’s defense scrambling to keep pace, ultimately leading to an open look at the top of the key for Hewitt Jr., their deadliest perimeter sniper.
But the shot missed at the buzzer, sending the game to overtime.
“I thought that was it right there. He’s been on all game, he’s been hitting from deep,” Coach Hewitt said. “That little shot, he knocks that down with his eyes closed. So I just knew it. We had the opportunity in our hand, man, and we just came up a little short. They won, so hat’s off to them.”
Quinton Snell said he was “sweating” that last shot in regulation.
“They got a look, they got a look,” Snell said. “But it is what it is. That ball did not go in, and it gave us another opportunity to try to win the game, and that’s what we were able to do.”
In the extra period, the other coach’s son stepped up with some huge plays for his team. Connally senior point guard Trajan Snell knocked down an off-balance leaner with 2:01 left while drawing a foul, then converted the and-one free throw for a 74-71 Cadet lead. The next time down, Snell penetrated through the Hillsboro defense before finding Jordan Nichols cutting in for a layup – Nichols’ only bucket of the night.
Demonstrating their uncommon balance, all five of the Cadets’ starters scored in double figures. Cleveland dropped in 17, Sidney Hadden hit for 15, Je’Juan Forward and Korie Black picked up 14 apiece, and Snell scored 10 to go along with nine assists.
Hewitt Jr. scored 14 points for Hillsboro to go along with Long’s massive contributions, while Dowell added 13. JaDarius Baxter and Tyson Simmons picked up eight points each.
If the teams were looking to put on a show for the jam-packed gym, they came out like halftime of the Super Bowl. The Eagles and Cadets combined for six 3-pointers in the first quarter alone, with Hillsboro’s smooth Hewitt Jr. canning three from the vicinity of the Czech Stop.
Hillsboro controlled the backboards in the early going, mostly thanks to its versatile, 6-5 senior forward Jamal Long. His inside presence and Hewitt’s long-distance dialing helped the Eagles take a 22-18 lead after a quarter.
Connally’s Quinton Snell reminded his team not to panic after that start.
“My thing is always stay the course. We’ve got to do what got us here,” the coach said. “These are the things that got us here, let’s stick with it. We knew – I think (Hewitt Jr.) had been kind of sick or something during district, so Coach was just trying to work him back in, and he’s been playing pretty good the past couple of playoff games, knocking them down. But he was shooting some deep ones, man.
“Hat’s off to him, Coach Hewitt does a great job with those guys. But we just had to stay the course.”
Connally can catch up in a hurry. The Cadets looked to push the ball every time they got a finger on it, especially after made baskets, when the Eagles were still retreating and setting up on defense. The Cadets managed to get several runout buckets in the second quarter, and rallied to take a 39-34 halftime edge.
That set up the captivating second-half conclusion. After the game, in a nice display of sportsmanship the teams gathered for a huddle and prayer, with Hillsboro’s Hewitt encouraging the Cadets to go on and represent District 17-4A well in Huntsville.
“We’re representing District 17-4A to the fullest,” Hewitt said. “I’m rooting for those boys all the way, and we’re here together. We played against each other today, but right now we’re here together. We’re rooting for those boys in Huntsville.”
Jarrell 81, Teague 76 (OT)
The No.1-ranked Cougars survived a gritty effort from the Lions in the Region III-3A quarterfinals, preventing Teague from reaching the regional tournament for a fourth straight year.
Teague (17-7) gave Jarrell everything it wanted, but the Cougars came up with some big buckets down the stretch in overtime to pull it out.
LaPoynor 44, Crawford 39
In Buffalo, LaPoynor outlasted Crawford in the Region III-2A quarterfinals, ending the Pirates’ nice run through the playoffs.