HILL CITY — Tuesday was one of those days for Claiborne Kyles.
Whether it was when he woke up for school, walked into Hill City High School’s gym that afternoon or took the court for tipoff against Ellis, it was a day where Kyles knew the outcome before the game even began.
“Coming into this game, I knew I wasn’t gonna go home with an L,” Kyles said. “I knew we was gonna win.”
Tuesday’s Mid-Continent League quarterfinal matchup came on the heels of a 56-50 win by the Railers at home last Friday. In that very game, Hill City held their opponent to 10 points in the first half and led by 14. The lead slipped away and instantly motivated Kyles. It showed every bit in the Ringnecks’ 54-41 victory.
In Friday’s loss, Kyles’ offense was limited by many factors — few plays were run through him and he suffered foul trouble early and often. The junior was held to five points on just five attempts from the field, his lowest totals in both categories since the final game of his freshman year.
“After the Ellis game, I went back to the junior high and got on the floor,” Kyles said. “After that game, I knew I wasn’t gonna get shut down like that ever again.”
Kyles entered Tuesday’s matchup averaging more than 17 points and 11 boards per game. And just like stars do, he responded with his best shooting night of the season, scoring 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting from the field. He came one rebound short of his fourth double-double of the season.
“They got me the ball. … This game, they actually wanted to get me the ball first,” Kyles said. “After that, I was just getting buckets. I couldn’t be stopped.”
Though he was not with the team last week, head coach Keith Riley noticed on film a poor job of feeding the ball into Kyles — a quick, athletic body at 6-foot-4. The plan was much different Tuesday.
“I think he wasn’t getting the ball, and I would be unhappy too if I didn’t get the ball,” Riley said. “We didn’t get him the ball inside. He’s our scorer and we didn’t throw him the ball one time the first half. … You see what he does when we get him the ball; he can score.”
Kyles made it a point to avoid a repeat performance right out of the gate. After going into the fourth quarter scoreless Friday, Kyles took all of 40 seconds to get into the scorebook. Everett Brandyberry, who scored one point in game one, tripled his total from Friday with a 3-pointer in transition to open up a 5-0 lead.
The attack of Kyles continued as he put back an offensive rebound and hit a jumper from the top of the key to go ahead 9-4 midway through the first.
After hauling in a steal, Kyles found Tate Buccholz — Friday’s leading scorer with 25 points — for an easy layup to continue displaying his wide-ranged skill set.
Facing a 13-8 deficit, Ellis got out into transition and seemed bound to cut Hill City’s lead to one basket late in the first. But the quickness of 5-foot-9 guard Zech Wilson pressured Alex Towns to miss the layup and caused Brendon Brenner to bump Wilson and draw a foul. Kyles made Ellis pay by scoring on the other end to give him eight points as part of a 15-8 lead after one.
“I think our kids came out with a lot of emotion,” Riley said. “I told them we were gonna win this ballgame tonight. We did some things we were supposed to, we executed really well.”
Brenner opened the second by giving a shoulder fake and hitting a jumper from the top of the key to fuel a 6-0 mini run by Ellis. In the midst of that run came a corner trey by Towns. It would be one of just two made 3-pointers by Ellis.
Minutes later, Brenner went up for a layup and was blocked by Wilson, despite an eight-inch height advantage. Wilson ended the half by scoring eight of the Ringnecks’ final 10 points, including an alley-oop layup from Brandyberry. Hill City led 29-20 at the break.
“I thought our point guard (Wilson) played good tonight, but he didn’t shoot the ball real well,” Riley said. “Zech didn’t have the kind of game he usually does, but boy can he rebound. For 5-9, 5-10, he just gets off the court, gets a lot of rebounds. He does a lot of things, even if he’s not shooting the ball well.”
Wilson finished 6-of-16 shooting for 12 points and, despite his small stature, hauled in a team-high 11 rebounds.
Kyles came out of the locker room with the same fire he entered the game with. Kyles scored nine points in the third, including a 3-pointer from the left wing to push Hill City ahead by 11.
This time, any comeback by Ellis was out of the picture. Brenner scored 12 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth, but 21 points by Kyles proved too much to overcome in a vengeful 54-41 win by the Ringnecks.
“We’ve gotta figure out a way to quit playing from behind so much,” Ellis head coach Brandon Maska said. “If we play every game close this year or have to fight back, we’re gonna have to have that effort at all times.”
The Railers scored 21 points in the second half, 18 coming via Brenner’s ability around the glass and jumper from the paint. A 3-pointer by Easton Smith, who finished with seven points, was the only other basket outside of Brenner in the half.
“Brenner is just unbelievable,” Riley said. “We can’t stop him. Every game we play him he’s getting 27 points.
“I don’t know, I must do a poor job coaching because he just scores on us. I know he puts up a lot of shots, and he should because he’s such a great shooter, but he can back up and shoot in, he can drive and shoot it — we don’t have anybody big like him to guard him.”
Third-seeded Hill City (5-3) advances to a semifinals matchup Friday with second-seeded Thomas More Prep-Marian (7-2) in a rematch of a 15-point loss by the Ringnecks in the second game of the season. Sixth-seeded Ellis (5-5) will meet up with seventh-seeded Smith Center on the loser’s side of the bracket.
Having already seen TMP earlier in the season, Kyles knows Friday’s contest is no guarantee.
“That’s a different story. That’s no sure win,” Kyles said. “That’s gonna be the hardest game. … If we play great D, we might win the game.”
For Riley, he has seen the strides his squad has taken since that 62-47 loss on the road.
“I knew we weren’t ready to play them last time.” Riley said. “We lost three starters and our first off the bench from last year, and we weren’t ready to play. I watched them play in the Hays tournament and I knew they were polished; we weren’t polished.
“We’re not polished yet. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’re gonna get there.”
Hill City 54, Ellis 41
Ellis 8 12 9 12 — 41
Hill City 15 14 11 14 — 54
Ellis — Brenner 26, Smith 7, Pfeifer 5, Towns 3.
Hill City — Kyles 21, Wilson 12, Bater 8, Brandyberry 7, Buchholz 6.