RIVERSIDE, Mo. — Park Hill kept letting chances slip away, unable to start a rout early.
Eventually, the Trojans’ experience and depth won out in nonconference matchup with Park Hill South on Wednesday, Dec. 21. Gigi Hopkins and then Alex Berger took turns in burying the offense-starved Panthers on the way to a 56-33 victory at Park Hill South High School.
Hopkins and Berger — both seniors — combined for 28 points in a needed blowout for a team with four losses (two in overtime and two by two points).
“That seems like how it’s been going for us,” Park Hill coach Aaron Neeser said. “The shots don’t fall, but with all the tough games we’ve played, they just learn to stick with it, stick with it, trust, do it together and it’ll work out. And it did tonight.”
Both teams played shorthanded in the only guaranteed matchup between the rivals, now not only in separate districts but separate sectionals.
Park Hill South remained without star sophomore center Alecia Westbrook (knee), while Park Hill continues to play minus senior center Morgen Smith (illness). With the main post presences on the sideline, most of the matchup featured 10 guards on the court at the same time.
Off to a 3-6 start, Park Hill South has averaged just 38.8 points per game and failed to top 36 points in five of the six losses.
“It’s changed a lot of what we have to do,” Park Hill South first-year coach Josh Dorr said. “It’s almost like coaching two separate teams because you go from trying to do one thing to doing something completely different. I told them after the game, ‘If (Westbrook) does come back — and we think she will — we have to keep playing the way we have been playing and let her just come into that — not go back to four players staring at her waiting for her to do something.’”
Hopkins, who finished with 11 points, hit the only basket for either team in the first two minutes of the first quarter.
Park Hill (4-4) opened on a 7-0 run and limited Park Hill South to just 2 free throws in the first quarter. The Panthers were 2-for-8 from the line but stayed close enough that when Kate Eischens banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing early in the second quarter, the Trojans saw their lead reduced to 7-5.
Hopkins then hit back-to-buckets, including Park Hill’s first 3-pointer, to stretch the advantage back to 14-7. A layup for Taiya Shelby, a sophomore guard who matched Hopkins with 11 points, on an assist from Alison Walls made it 22-9 in the final minute of the half.
After made baskets, Park Hill set up a 1-3-1 press defense, which forced Park Hill South into turnovers that fueled the Trojans’ offense.
“We’ve played the last five games with this group,” Neeser said. “I just think they are starting to grasp and understand what we’re trying to teach and coach. They’re buying in and making the plays when available and just trying to have some fun while they do it. I think sometimes they stress themselves out.”
Up 25-13 at the break, Park Hill’s lead never went back to single digits.
Hopkins scored the last of her 11 points on a 6-0 run out of the break before Berger took over. Her layup with 3 minutes, 25 seconds left in the third quarter made it 36-15, and she scored a tough basket on the left block 2 minutes later to put Park Hill South down 41-19.
Berger scored four points in the final minute of the third quarter, giving Park Hill its first 23-point lead.
“I think it was just trying to get everything rolling, trying to get the ball in the net for us,” said Berger, who led all scorers with 17 points. “Once that (defense) was in, everything was rolling in, and we were pretty confident in the second half.”
Park Hill made just 8 of 17 free throws but received more than enough points from its three double-digit scorers.
Park Hill South went 5-for-19 on free throws, including the 2-for-8 stretch in the first quarter. Already minus guard Raquel Reid due to a preseason knee injury, the loss of Westbrook has completely changed the Panthers’ intended rotations early in the year.
Dymeria and De’Jaria Guillory have become the top scoring options, combining for 21 points vs. Park Hill. Their strength is getting to the rim and drawing fouls, but free throw shooting continues to be a struggle.
The duo shot all 19 of Park Hill South’s free throws against the Trojans.
“We’ve got to make our free throws — overall,” Dorr said. “We saw them the most tonight, obviously, but overall as a team, we’re shooting about 47 percent and that’s before tonight. I’m sure tonight is not going to help us.”