INDEPENDENCE, Mo. — Park Hill’s seniors earned a coveted playoff return, but trudging to the locker room after a 57-45 loss to Liberty in a Class 5 sectional showed the disappointment in thinking about what could’ve been.
The Trojans’ season came to an end Wednesday, March 8 at Silverstein Eye Centers Arena, continuing a frustrating history in postseason play for the program. Dru Smith, Chester Graves, Tyione Stewart and Khalid Smith were freshmen during the last playoff trip in 2014, a run that also ended in the opening round.
Smith scored a team-high 24 points, but Park Hill never recovered from a halfcourt heave at the second-quarter buzzer that put Liberty firmly in control. The Trojans finished 21-6 — one of the best records in program history — but hoped to make their first ever run to the state semifinals.
Instead, Park Hill dropped to 1-8 all time in the playoffs.
“Tough locker room. I hurt for the seniors, hurt for the whole team,” Park Hill coach Chad Jones said. “Dru, Chester, Tyione, Khalid — those guys left it all on the court all year long. It was a very successful year, but our goals were Columbia.”
Park Hill trailed by double digits for all of the fourth quarter, unable to make a true charge.
Smith hit the last of his four 3-pointers with 26.2 seconds left to trim Liberty’s lead to 55-45, but the Blue Jays shot 20 of 22 on free throws overall, finishing off the upset at the line. Jones subbed out his starters late with the result no longer in question.
The result seemed to hit Smith hard after the 6-foot-4 senior led Park Hill to its second district title in four years, seemingly willing the Trojans’ offense to life multiple times in the postseason.
“Time flies, you know? I had fun at Park Hill,” Smith said. “I’ll remember all the memories, all the coaches who helped me out when I got here — made me a better man, a better player.”
A third-year starter, Smith again animated Park Hill after both teams went scoreless for the first three minutes of the sectional.
Graves picked up two fouls in the first two minutes to start an irregular early substitution pattern for the Trojans. Smith hit two early 3s to put them ahead 8-4, and he ended the first quarter with 10 points.
On a team with a balanced starting five, the rest of the offense never followed Smith’s lead.
Outside of his double-digit effort, Graves was next on the scoring list with nine, while junior Ronnie Bell — the Trojans’ leading scorer much of the year until Smith passed him in the playoffs — scored just six.
“(Smith) hits those three 3s early, and I’m thinking it’s just a matter of time until our horses get going,” Jones said. “Seemed to be one of those nights we seemed to be out of sync for a lot of the game.”
Liberty led 15-14 after the first quarter and stretched that to 19-14 with a short run to start the second quarter.
Park Hill responded with a 6-0 run to take its final lead at 20-19, but the Trojans scored just five more points in the half and just 11 more by the end of the third quarter. Smith’s layup with about 3 seconds left in the second quarter trimmed the deficit to a manageable 29-25.
Liberty quickly inbounded, and junior Jordan McClellan threw in a running shot from just across the half court line for a demoralizing 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We’re down four points, and boom, we blink our eye and we’re down seven,” Jones said. “The guys came back and fought hard at the beginning of the third quarter. We just couldn’t buy a bucket.”
Park Hill didn’t truly recover and only scored six points in the third quarter.
Down 12 entering the fourth quarter, the Trojans attempted to find the energy needed to make a last-ditch run. The magic never developed, and despite being ranked in the Missouri Basketball Coaches Association top 10 for much of the season, the players were forced to reconcile a historic season with the disappointing finish.
Park Hill made the playoffs in 2014 as a plucky .500 team after a district upset. The Trojans were the favorites this time around, and despite the frustrations on offense, the players never stopped trying to keep the season alive.
“I was always taught, ‘Never give up until there’s zero on the clock,’” Smith said. “I just played my hardest for the whole game, gave it my all.”