KENSINGTON — There weren’t going to be too many surprises Tuesday night between the Thunder Ridge High School girls’ basketball team and visiting Beloit/St. John’s-Tipton.
The Northern Plains League foes have exchanged some nailbiters through their respective current stretches atop the conference. Each of their coaches know exactly what the other is going to try and do. They literally told each other their game plan before the contest.
So it should also come as no surprise Tuesday's thriller came down to the wire, with the Longhorns, the No. 7 ranked team in Class 1A Division I, sneaking away with a victory.
Sophomore guard Brennen Kirchhoff found sophomore Jaden Boden wide open under the basket in the final second, and Boden put in a layup to give the host a 36-35 victory. That came after a back-and-forth affair where neither team led by more than five points all game.
“We know what each other’s doing,” Thunder Ridge coach Darren Grauerholz said of the matchup, the second meeting between the two teams this season — both won by Thunder Ridge. “I told (SJT coach Keith Kresin) my game plan, and he told me his, and we just put the pawns out there.”
What it came down to was execution, and in the end, Thunder Ridge’s young group — with just one senior on the team — had a little better execution than SJT’s young team, which also features just one senior.
“We expected this. We really did,” Grauerholz said.
What might not have been expected, outside of an unforced turnover by the Blujays that gave the Longhorns a chance with 25 seconds left, was how wide open Boden was for what turned into the game’s final shot.
Kirchhoff drove the baseline and was looking to dump it off to 6-foot-1 junior Elizabeth Hardacre, a player they tried to go to twice in the closing seconds.
“I was going to dump it back to Libby (Hardacre), but I saw a flash of light on the back side, so I just dumped it there,” Kirchhoff said.
Kirchhoff herself probably could have taken the shot if need be. The sophomore finished with a game-high 17 points on a night where neither team mustered much else offensively.
“Brennen was just lucky enough to get out of there to find (Boden) open. Brennen sees the floor about as good as anyone I’ve seen,” Grauerholz said.
In a tight matchup, that was a key factor all game. The teams exchanged buckets early with the Longhorns scoring as they always have in transition out of pressure, while the Blujays hit a pair of first-quarter 3-pointers to make it 12-12 by the end of the first quarter. By halftime, the Blujays, ranked No. 8 in 1A Division II, led just 18-17 after a pair of free throws late in the quarter.
By halftime, Hardacre already had four blocked shots. She scored just four points on a tough shooting night, but her presence was felt on defense in the middle of a zone that often extends to half court in Thunder Ridge’s pressure style.
“We all play so well together, and we all talk well,” Hardacre said. “If someone’s coming through the middle, everyone tells me. I just try to get up there and block it.”
Neither team was able to create separation in the third quarter either. Thunder Ridge backed off its pressure for most of the third quarter. Grauerholz knew it likely was going to come down to the wire.
“(The pressure) wasn’t quite doing what we normally get out of it. Against a good team like this, that’s about what we expected,” the coach said. “We thought we better save some steps.”
It paid off. SJT led for all of the final quarter until the end, and had built up a game-high five-point lead with less than three minutes left. A steal at half court by Kirchhoff and a layup brought it to a three-point game at the 2:30 mark, and Thunder Ridge turned back on the pressure, trapping at the wing and corners.
“I do like our defense,” Kirchhoff said. “We see the floor, run the floor quite a bit and it wears teams down.”
A pair of Boden free throws narrowed the gap to one with 45 seconds left, and STJ brought it down the floor with a chance to run out some clock. But facing little pressure, Blujay junior Kara Eilert dribbled off her knee and out of bounds, setting up the chance for Thunder Ridge — one the Longhorns took full advantage of, something they might not have done a season ago.
“There were some times last year when we blew huge leads and didn’t play as well as we should have,” Hardacre said. “This year’s been a lot better as far as keeping a lead or keeping our heads until and at the end of the game.”
St. John’s-Tipton boys 63, Thunder Ridge 21
The visiting Blujays jumped out to a 17-6 lead after one quarter and never looked back as they led 38-13 by halftime and 54-16 by the end of the third quarter to force a running clock.
The Longhorns were led by sophomore Cameron Grauerholz with seven points.