Boys Basketball

Columbia continues its progress; clutch free throws lift Highland

Quick, name the only team to beat the top-ranked Nashville Hornets this season.

If you said the Columbia Eagles, you obviously are a sharp follower of basketball in the metro-east. Columbia has been making some noise since that early 67-61 win over the state’s top-ranked 2A squad and created more attention Friday with a 51-49 Cahokia Conference victory over state-ranked Central.

It was Central’s first league loss and only the second overall in 11 games for the Cougars (13-3). It was the sixth straight win for Columbia, now 11-3 overall and 3-2 in the conference, and it came courtesy of an 18-point, 11-rebound night from junior Drew Huebner. Huebner hit eight of his nine shots and was a difference-maker inside.

“Taking a look at matchups, I thought we would have success inside early if they opened up in man (defense),” Columbia coach Mark Sandstrom said. “We wanted to make sure Drew and Korbin (Farmer) got post entry passes inside and they were successful with that. From an offensive standpoint we really take what the defense gives us.”

Sandstrom said his team is making another important step — learning to believe in itself.

“Going in our kids expected to win that game,” he said. “It was a physical, hard-fought game, but our kids expected to win going in.”

Junior guard Jonathan Holmes (14.2 points per game, 33 3-pointers) is the Eagles’ leading scorer, followed by Farmer 13.6 points, 7.3 rebounds per game), Huebner 11.1 points, 8.8 rebounds per game) and Ryan Gudeman (9.6 ppg, 55 assists).

“Every time Central made a run at us or tied the game we had an answer for them,” Sandstrom said.

Sandstrom, whose team plays host to Monroe County archrival Waterloo on Tuesday, said switching to Saint Louis University’s ball screen-motion offense has paid off after some early-season struggles.

“It’s fit our personnel better,” he said. “Our big people are mobile and make good decisions and they can handle the ball a little bit. We really only have two seniors in the rotation and we started four juniors and a freshman the other night, so we’ve got a lot to look forward to.”

One of the future pieces figures to be 5-foot-9 freshman guard Jordan Holmes. The younger brother of Jonathan Holmes had a breakout performance in the championship game victory over Southwestern at the Freeburg-Columbia Holiday Tournament when he scored 20 points and sank four of five 3-point tries.

“He’s one of those kids that don’t come around very often,” Sandstrom said. “For a freshman to step up in the championship game like that ... I’m just he’s on our club instead of somebody else’s. He’s a little bit ahead of the curve as far as understanding the game and knowing what to do physically.”

Clutch free throws lift Highland

Highland junior guard Brode Portell found himself in a precarious position Saturday at the Highland Shootout. With his team losing by two to Fort Zumwalt North, he was fouled while trying to fire up an off-balance 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds remaining.

Needing to make all three free throws to secure a victory and at least two to force overtime, Portell stepped up to the line and hit all three for a 53-52 Highland victory. Highland’s third straight win helped erase the memory of a troubling five-game losing skid.

“I knew they were going to try to foul and I saw the kid coming,” Portell said. “As soon as he started to foul I just kind of threw it up there hoping to get the call.”

Even then, there was still the matter of hitting free throws.

“I was just thinking back to practice and all the free throws that I’ve shot, same thing every time,” said Portell, who admitted the first one was the toughest. “I thought it was in for sure, then it hit the front of the and scared me a little bit. After that first one went down, the next ones seemed easy. It was definitely intense. I was just happy to get a chance to win it.”

Portell is 32-for-39 at the foul line (82.1 percent) this season, but teammate Austin Elledge is the top free-throw shooter in the area after hitting 34 of his first 38 attempts (89.5 percent).

Nashville survives the O-rena

A trip to Okawville’s spacious O-rena gymnasium Saturday nearly resulted in a loss for the Nashville Hornets.

With Okawville applying much of its defensive attention inside to slowing down 6-7 junior star Royce Newman, guard Daniel Thorson came up with 22 points and five 3-pointers in a 49-47 victory over the Rockets. Thorson and Dylan Mueller (18 points) combined to hit nine 3-pointers.

“They did a good job taking the pass away from Royce or collapsing on him hard and it was nice the other guys stepped up and knocked down some shots,” Nashville coach Brad Weathers said.

Thorson also got hot for the Hornets late last season during their stretch run that led to a second-place finish at state. He also had a 20-point night Friday in a River-to-River Conference win over Pinckneyville.

“He had some big games for us in the sectional and super-sectional,” Weathers said of Thorson, who had 20 points Friday night in a win over Pinckneyville. “The night before against Pinckneyville he scored in a variety of ways, too. Those are two hard road wins for us against good teams that played us tough.

“Thankfully we knocked down some shots and free throws at crunch time. We’d get up six or eight points and then they’d come back and hit a crucial three. Every time I thought we might have a chance to pick up on a little bit of a lead, they answered every time.”