In a season of up and downs for Hillside’s boys basketball team the Hornets ended their run in the PAC-6 Conference tournament on a high note with a 76-67 win on Friday night at East Chapel Hill. It was Hillside’s first tournament title since 2012.
Earlier Friday, Hillside’s girls rolled to a 79-57 win over Jordan for a perfect run through league play.
Hillside girls basketball coach Ovester Grays spent much of Friday night’s PAC 6 championship game against Jordan standing on the sidelines, arms crossed over his sweater vest gazing through clear-rimmed glasses at the court.
But there’s an edge underneath the distinguished exterior. He dressed down his team halfway through the fourth quarter after it allowed Jordan to draw within 15 points.
“One of the downsides to winning by 30 or 40 is convincing them they’ve got to keep playing hard,” Grays said. “Human nature kicks in, and I thought they just got a little bit relaxed and their intensity dropped off a little bit, so we had to get it back.”
That passed for conflict in Hillside’s 79-57 win, as it completed a perfect run through conference and tournament play for the PAC-6 title. Hillside steamrolled its way to an average margin of victory of 35 points in its past ten conference games largely on the back of
a press defense that only allowed seven opponents all season to score 50 points.
Senior Jakelbi Lewis, who was named PAC-6 defensive player of the year after the game, is also one of the most vocal players in the conference. The 5-foot-3 point guard stays quiet off the court, but transforms into a fire-breathing general once she laces up.
“I’m a point guard, so I have to speak,” Lewis explains. “I have to talk. I have to get my team in place. If they don’t know the play, I have to tell them. I have to tell them where to be on the court -- a lot of people don’t know.”
Lewis led Hillside’s stifling defense all season, and next year will suit up for Morgan State. Grays has coached players who went on to play in the ACC, SEC and Big East, but says Lewis is one of the best he’s had.
“They’re getting a steal,” he said. “She’s one of the best court generals I’ve coached ... because of her communication skills. She commands her team on both ends, and I also think it gives us a lot of energy on the defensive end. And of course she brings a lot of energy, too.”
Lewis’ 17 points were outpaced only by teammate Elisia Grissett, who finished with 21 and earned conference player of the year honors after the game. Four members of Hillside’s 10th straight conference championship winning team made all-conference.
For Jordan head coach Ty Cox, Hillside is the bar. The Falcons bear a lot of similarities in playing style to Hillside, with both team’s penchants for aggressive press defense and overwhelming physicality, but Jordan couldn’t beat Hillside at its own game on Friday.
A rash of turnovers hurt Jordan’s ability to stay in the game, particularly in the second quarter, and. Hillside shot a staggering 47 free throws and made 36 of them. However, with only two seniors and seven freshman and sophomores seeing major playing time, the focus for Jordan has always been on developing this season.
“We had a tough second quarter, but we didn’t quit,” Cox said. “We could have easily, but then they competed all game long. I feel as if they grew.”
The Hornets (19-8) entered the tournament as the No. 4 seed and knocked off the top two teams in the conference on consecutive nights. They reached the championship with almost the same game plan — keep East Chapel Hill’s Carter Collins and then Northern’s Jalen Johnson under wraps. It worked.
Hillside coach Thurman Jordan said it was a sweet victory for his team, which won its sixth straight game for its longest winning streak of the season, and one that he has been waiting for as a coach.
“The last couple of weeks of the season we’ve been playing really well,” Jordan said. “We knew we had a chance and we felt good about our opportunity. We just wanted to make the most of it.”
Derrick Wiley led Hillside with 27 points as the Hornets improved from seven wins last season to 19 and counting this season. Wiley hit three 3s in the game and was 8 of 10 from the free-throw line.
“Winning the PAC-6 Tournament is a huge thing for us,” Wiley said. “We can still get better. We kept our composure against Northern. We needed points from outside and we got them. Every time we hit them, it gave us more confidence.”
Xavier Young also added 15 points for the Hornets, including a pair of 3s.
Northern (18-7) entered the game on an eight-game winning streak but the Knights’ good fortunes ran out.
Northern coach Ronnie Russell said Hillside played like a stronger team in the championship game.
“They played together more so than we did,” Russell said. “We didn’t get after it like we’re capable of doing.”
Hillside won the game with its outside shooting, knocking down 7 of 10 3-pointers, including four in a row in a key stretch in the second quarter when it took control of the game. The Hornets also were otherwise efficient on offense, shooting better than 50 percent from the floor (21 of 40). They also made 26 of 37 free throws.
The Hornets held a 12-7 lead at the end of the first quarter and steadily built upon it in the second to lead 36-20 at the intermission.
Northern, which was seeking its third title in four seasons and second in a row, struggled from the floor in the first half, making only four field goals (4 of 14). If the Knights had not gone to the free throw line and made 9 of 11, the score would have been a lot worse.
“We couldn’t buy a basket there for a while,” Russell said.
Hillside built its biggest lead 23 points late in the third period 53-30 on a pair of free throws by Traylen Warren.
Northern tried to scrap back in the game but the lead Hillside built was too great to overcome. The closest the Knights got until a final 3 by Ricky Council III was down by 13 points on two occasions in the fourth quarter. Council III led Northern with 24 points, while Johnson added 18.
Hillside will try to ride the momentum of winning the tournament into next week’s state playoffs. The Hornets opened the season with a five-game winning streak before losing four in a row. They had another four game winning streak followed by a pair of consecutive losses. Hillside’s last loss before their current streak came on Jan. 27 when they lost at Cardinal Gibbons.