ELLIS — In just a matter of minutes, the crowd inside the Ellis High School gym knew the kind of night Hill City senior Lexie McDowell was in store for.
But in the midst of her scoring a career-high 32 points in a 49-44 triumph, she wasn’t aware of the type of offensive performance she put on display Friday night. When she finally got a look at the stats, she concluded it was “probably” her best offensive performance in a storied career at Hill City.
“I didn’t really know until after the game, but I guess that’s how it goes,” McDowell said.
With McDowell smashing her previous high of 23 points from a Dec. 18 win over Phillipsburg, the Ringnecks’ perfect start to the season improved to 7-0. Even with the magic put on display by McDowell, three-win Ellis gave the Ringnecks everything they had 29 of the 32 minutes played in their home gym.
The Railers trailed for most of the first half until Aspen Younger was found in transition early in the third quarter for an open layup to take a 21-19 lead. Amanda Conway responded with her first basket for Hill City until Alexcia Deutscher scored four straight as part of a 6-0 Ellis run to force Linda Nighswonger to call a timeout.
McDowell responded with her fifth 3 of the game and a turnaround jumper before assisting in transition to Lauren Jones to regain the lead. Hill City led 35-33 after three quarters.
A 5-0 run by the Railers gave them a 40-38 advantage. McDowell responded with her sixth trey of the night. On the other end, Aspen Younger scored her 11th point of the game to take a 42-41 lead with three minutes left. Hill City came back and scored eight of the final 10 points of the game to snatch the 49-44 victory against their Mid-Continent League rival.
On a night where Nighswonger noticed some of her other shooters were in a funk, particularly Amanda Conway and Conner Keith, she was not exactly surprised in the performance put together by the 5-foot-10 Washburn University signee.
“The game’s where she’s having a lot of our points, our other scorers haven’t scored as much,” Nighswonger said of McDowell. “Tonight she was willing to spot up and take the shot. Some other shooters weren’t quite as confident as they have been, so we like having her on the team.”
McDowell entered the game averaging 17 points per game while shooting a hair under 50 percent from three. Conway and Keith both average in double figures and hover around 45 percent from the field, but the pair combined for seven points against Perry Mick’s 2-3 zone.
“I find that the easiest way to guard their shooters as strange as that sounds,” Mick said of his choice to run a zone defense against Hill City. “I don’t like trying to guard their shooters out of a man because they run off screens. We have a pretty good idea of where we need to guard in the zone. Really, if you look at it, a lot of McDowell’s three’s were on either skips or times when their offense broke down and then they just shot it out. I thought we did a pretty good job guarding, it is hard to guard the perimeter that much, but I thought we did a pretty good job out of it.”
Ellis (3-6) got off to a sluggish start to the season in lead-up to next week’s MCL tournament. While the return of their leader, Deutscher, has been a steady one after ACL surgery last winter, efforts like Friday’s loss show Mick his team is beginning to turn the corner.
“I think this shows that we have improved,” Mick said. “This was a lot better effort than we had early in the year. It was a loss, but it was to a quality team. Hill City’s a good opponent, so obviously I thought our effort was really good. There’s still some things that we still need to do better. We need to turn the ball over less, but that’s a work in progress; we’re just struggling through that, and hopefully we continue to improve.”
Even with hopes of a run at Class 2A sub-state, Mick felt the conceptions of the immediacy of Deutscher’s impact might have been misconstrued. But with a 13-point, 11-rebound performance, he also sees his star player starting to come around.
“Sometimes the expectations are a little bit unrealistic, and I think there were people out there that are going, ‘Her very first game she comes back, she’s gonna look just like she always did,’ and that hasn’t been the case,” Mick said. “She hasn’t played basketball in a year. I know her knees are a little sore, but I do think she’s gradually regaining her confidence, I think she’s regaining her quickness, I think she’s regaining her jumping ability. We’re being patient, but I think she’s coming back and she’s helping us a lot.”
But even with Deutscher returning to form, McDowell could not be denied. She scored the first nine points of the game for Hill City, all coming on 3-pointers from the left wing. McDowell rebounded a missed free throw by Kayla Bell and got a bucket to give her 11 points and a 14-12 lead after one.
Both teams struggled on offense in the second quarter. Deutscher was found wide-open off an inbound for her second basket of the game with 4:20 to play in the half. McDowell’s fourth 3-pointer of the game with 1:22 until the half was the lone Hill City basket of the second quarter and brought the teams to the locker room tied at 19.
The teams swapped leads in a tightly-contested second half until Hill City’s full-court press, which forced Ellis into turnovers all night, caused the game’s most important turnover.
With a 43-42 lead, McDowell guarded Deutscher as she took the ball up the court near mid-court. She looked up to make a pass to a teammate, allowing McDowell to swipe her hands in for the steal and score an open layup for her 32nd point. As McDowell displayed late, Nighswonger feels the improved defense is Hill City’s biggest improvement from last season’s 19-5 record.
“Last year, I felt defensively we were pretty solid, but we had more breakdowns,” Nighswonger said. “This year, we’re just a little more hungry to go get the ball and we’re more focused on what our job is. It’s nice to have them go get it on defense, because that takes pressure off our offense.”
“It’s just anticipating,” McDowell added. “That’s what they always tell us to do, anticipate where they’re gonna throw.”
With the ability of Hill City’s offense to move the ball efficiently, McDowell is often able to get into a position and set her feet to wait for a skip pass for an open jumper, making her job much easier.
“It makes it pretty easy. They always tell us to be ready to shoot the ball because we can get it anywhere on the court,” McDowell said. “It’s just moving it around a lot and finding the open person. I guess it ended up being me most of the time. They shut down a lot of what we wanted to do, but we got the win so that’s always good.”
“Now, she doesn’t have any part in handling the ball, and all she has to do is get her feet set and wait for it to come to her,” Mick added. “She’s a real natural set shooter. … She can shoot the ball.”
Hill City’s perfect record earned it the No. 1 seed in the MCL tournament and a Tuesday matchup with the winner of Trego and Oakley in the first round of the MCL tournament. Ellis (No. 7 seed) will square off with Plainville (No. 10 seed) in a play-in game Saturday at Stockton for the right to travel to Thomas More Prep-Marian on Tuesday.
Ellis boys 56, Hill City 50
Ellis senior Brendon Brenner had one word to describe his team’s first-half performance against Hill City at home Friday night. His coach’s words at halftime were not much better.
“That’s probably the most fired up I’ve been all year,” said Brandon Maska, first-year head coach of the Ellis boys’ basketball team. “I think we were 3 for 25 in the first half from the field — it was somewhere around there. It wasn’t pretty.”
With a raised tone in the locker room under the visiting bleachers came frustration. But a plan and challenge came with it, and did Ellis ever respond.
“At halftime, I just said we’ve gotta attack the zone from now on,” Maska said. “I don’t care if we don’t hit a shot, but I at least wanna attack, get guys better looks. … I really had to challenge us in the locker room.”
In the first half, though they were getting good looks, the Railers’ basket served as a air-tight container. Ellis managed just five points in each of the first two quarters due to the difficulty of maneuvering through Hill City’s zone defense. The Railers trailed 24-10 at halftime behind 14 points and four 3-pointers by Hill City’s Tate Bucholz.
The plan for the second half came with much specificity. The guards would make a pass, go back to that same area and attack the zone while looking for Brenner to pop open in the middle. After he scored a few times, Maska knew the Hill City defense would sink into the middle, opening up the three-point line for the likes of Clay Feik, Alex Towns and Easton Smith.
“Those kids stepped up and responded to the challenge,” Maska said.
Brenner, who averages around 27 points per game, entered halftime with two points off free throws. Derek Pfeifer scored all five of Ellis’ points in the first quarter and Feik scored a three courtesy of a shooter’s roll to account for all 10 of the points in the half.
The second-half plan worked, to say the least. Brenner scored Ellis’ first nine points of the second half, hauling in multiple offensive rebounds and living around the rim to pull the Railers within five.
“I just knew I had to come out and hustle,” said Brenner, a 6-5 senior. “I wasn’t hustling and I wasn’t creating shots; I was settling, basically, is what I was doing. I wasn’t driving or anything, trying to get to the basket. … I told myself I was gonna quit shooting outside shots. My outside shot wasn’t on, so go from inside.”
Two more 3-pointers by Feik, one coming as a pull-up jumper from NBA range, and Smith’s first four points of the game pulled them to a 34-29 deficit after three.
It wasn’t until the fourth quarter when Claiborne Kyles — Hill City’s athletic, 6-foot-4 leading scorer at nearly 20 points per game — got in the book. After being plagued by fouls in the first half, Kyles completed a three-point play and knocked down two more free throws to score five straight. His night ended there as he fouled out with 4:26 to play.
“That’s what we worked on and talked about all week in practice,” Maska said. “He (Kyles) was our No. 1 goal to shut down and have a quiet night.
“The other dude, No. 20 (Bucholz), stepped up in a big way.”
Bucholz recorded 16 points through three quarters, a total which only went up with an early 3-pointer, his fifth of the game. Followed by Kyles’ points, Hill City held a 42-33 advantage. At that point, Ellis’ offense flipped the switch.
Having already scored two straight buckets, Smith drained a trey to make it seven straight by the 6-3 junior for his team. Towns, an experienced player with plenty of experience in big moments, made his first shot of the game on a deep-three from the wing to cut the deficit to three.
Bucholz answered with a finger-roll only for Brenner to power his way into the paint, rebound his own miss and gather his 13th point of the game.
On the way down the court, Hill City’s Kevin Bates was issued a technical foul for something he said, allowing Smith to make one of two free throws and giving Ellis possession.
Towns made the Ringnecks pay.
“I keep talking to Alex (Towns) and telling him, ‘Alex, it’s gonna come. Don’t stop believing, don’t give up and then you’re gonna be able to put multiple games together like that. Pick your moments and then make the big shots’,” Maska said.
Towns sank his second 3-pointer of the game, giving Ellis four free points thanks to the issued technical. The Railers never looked back.
On the next offensive possession, Feik drove in from the left side and scooped the ball off the right side of the glass to extend the lead to three. Bates returned and muscled his way to a basket.
Even for a big frame at 6-2, Bates could not handle Brenner when needed. Brenner’s speed allowed him to get around Bates for a basket on an inbound. He then gathered two offensive rebounds, finished off the glass and finished the and-one to make the deficit six. Although Bucholz drained a free throw and his sixth three, Feik finished it off with four free throws to hand Ellis a 56-50 win.
Ellis scored 46 points in the second half and overcame a 14-point deficit to improve to 5-4. For a team likely to play without Ryan Herl — a sophomore who started most of last season at point guard — for the season due to a foot injury, Maska was pleased to see his decision to enter the locker room furious pay off.
“They were getting fired up with me. They weren’t pointing fingers, they weren’t blaming each other,” Maska said. “They were saying, ‘I’m not missing another shot coach.’ It was a positive thing.
“I didn’t know going in. I was just like, ‘OK, do I completely go off the deep end?’ I didn’t know if they’d sink, hide a little bit, but I raised my voice, they raised their voice and were like, ‘We’ll start playing coach.’ I was proud that they came out and did that.”
Brenner (16), Feik (15) and Smith (12) each finished in double figures after combining for five total points in the first half. Bucholz finished with a game-high 25 points while Zech Wilson found his way to 12 points for Hill City.
The Ringnecks (4-3) will not be short of motivation Tuesday as the No. 3 seed in the first round of Mid-Continent League tournament. They will get a crack at Ellis, the No. 6 seed, on their home floor. With the way Ellis dismantled the Ringnecks in the second half, Brenner is expecting nothing less than a dogfight.
“I’m glad we came out, but they’re gonna come after us Tuesday,” Brenner said. “We’ve gotta be ready.”
Hill City 49, Ellis 44
Hill City (7-0) 14 5 16 14 — 49
Ellis (3-6) 12 5 14 11 — 44
Hill City — Jones 5, Conway 6, Keith 1, McDowell 32, Nickelson 4, Bell 1.
Ellis — Foster 12, Younger 11, Deutscher 13, N. Schoenberger 2, Mattheyer 2, J. Schoenberger 3.
Ellis 56, Hill City 50
Hill City (4-3) 8 16 10 16 — 50
Ellis (5-4) 5 5 19 27 — 56
Hill City — Bucholz 25, Bates 5, Kyles 5, VanLoenen 2, Wilson 12, Brandyberry 1.
Ellis — Feik 15, Brenner 18, Towns 6, Smith 12, Pfeifer 5.