By Ryan Costello, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Brad Hawkins picked a good time to put in Rustin Pearce.
The Kremlin-Hillsdale coach didn’t play the junior until the fourth quarter, the Broncs having trailed throughout against Cherokee Strip six-seed Deer Creek-Lamont and both teams struggling to shoot at the cavernous Chisholm Trail Expo Center.
At least until Pearce broke the trend.
He made three shots, all three-pointers. The first came in the fourth quarter’s opening minute to give the slow-starting Broncs their first lead, and the last put them ahead for good.
Pearce had nine points on three shots, Eli Voth scored a game-high 11 points, and No. 3 seed Kremlin-Hillsdale rallied to stymie Deer Creek-Lamont’s upset bid 38-36 in Thursday’s opening round of the Cherokee Strip Conference Tournament.
“It was crazy,” said Pearce, who fell three points short of tying a career high in just one quarter of play. “We were in a huge slump, and we just came out firing and came back … I usually don’t shoot that well in this gym, but today, I was just on.”
The Broncs (11-4) struggled early to keep pace with DCLA, which Kremlin-Hillsdale beat by 26 in the teams’ only previous meeting last month. They trailed 8-4 after the first quarter and were stuck on four points for the game’s first 11 minutes, 35 seconds. The Broncs trailed by as many as nine points — a seemingly stout deficit given the pace of play — before a Trev Shoenhals up-and-under, a short jumper by Kass Bittle and a transition layup by Hayden Bonine narrowed the margin to 15-12 and trailed 19-14 at half.
Dalton Cunningham and Lane Williams scored to put DCLA (3-11) up 23-16 early in the third, but the Eagles missed six of their next seven shots, giving Kremlin-Hillsdale the chance to rally. The Broncs did, tying the game for the first time since 0-0 when J.J. Stubblefield drove and hit Andre Lizar on a backdoor cut to level the game at 23-23 with 2:10 left in the third.
DCLA led 27-25 entering the fourth, but Pearce entered the game for the first time early in the frame and promptly hit a three from the wing to give Kremlin-Hillsdale its first lead at 28-27. Pearce took two more shots for the rest of the game, but hit both, each of them threes that gave K-H leads at 31-30 and 34-32.
“I kind of thought he could be a little spark,” said Kremlin-Hillsdale coach Brad Hawkins. “I knew if he got open, he might knock one down, so I put him out there, and he came up big for us.”
The win was the Broncs’ fourth straight and its seventh in eight games, the best stretch of an outstanding turnaround for a team that a season ago entered the same tournament winless at 0-17, and finished the year 1-23, their lone win snapping a 62-game losing streak. In last season’s Cherokee Strip opener, Kremlin-Hillsdale lost to Cherokee, by 24 points.
That team likely wouldn’t have responded to a nine-point deficit as well as this season’s Broncs did on Thursday, Hawkins said.
“They’re a lot more confident,” he said. “Today showed that. Playing from behind all day and finally hitting some shots, making some defensive plays … I’m glad they get to experience (success) and be a part of it. It’s helping them grow and mature. It’s exciting. I’m really enjoying seeing them have some success.”
K-H will play against second-seeded Cherokee in today’s 5:40 p.m. semifinal, and DCLA will play seventh-seed Timberlake in the 12:20 p.m. consolation semifinal. Cherokee beat Timberlake 38-26 in opening-round play.
All the Cherokee Strip games can be heard on KXLS (95.7 FM).