HOLDEN – In maybe the biggest game of the year for the Holden boys basketball team, the Rockets got exactly what they needed from their core trio of players.
Hartland Litolff scored 32 points, Dylan Gueldner added 27 and Nick Forbes scored 12, hitting some key free throws down the stretch to help Holden ice an 81-72 win over Mount Hermon in District 7-B play Thursday.
“I don’t think we’ve played any better than that since we went to that Simpson Tournament at the very start of the year,” Holden coach Landon DuBois said as the Rockets avenged a 70-48 loss to Mount Hermon last month. “If we can find a way to bottle that up and put it out there whenever we’re ready for it, we’re tough to beat. Mount Hermon’s a really good team, and we got down some, fought through some adversity to get back in it and extended the lead there late to kind of hold on to the win. If we can bottle this up and keep it going, we’re going to be somebody that you don’t want to play in the playoffs.
“The kids stepped up to the challenge, and they made a stand,” DuBois continued. “They really want a chance to win district, and tonight had to happen for that to be the case.”
While three players handled the bulk of Holden's scoring, Litolff said the win was a team effort.
“It’s about trusting each other, and when all five of us are linked together, it’s definitely a different game,” Litolff said. “You’ve got five fingers, and you can’t punch somebody with five fingers out. You’ve got to have them all together in a fist, so that’s what we’ve got to do. When we come together and make that fist, that’s when we can knock out somebody.”
The Rockets (14-14, 3-2) led 61-53 going into the fourth quarter and twice extended the lead to 12 in the early stages of the quarter – the last time ad 67-55 on a pair of Forbes free throws.
Gueldner praised his team’s rebounding against the Yellowjackets.
“They send all five guys to the goal,” he said. “They’re a real aggressive team, and they’re hard to box out. They’re really aggressive, really athletic, so if any of us got that rebound, we’d just sling it and go, sling it and go.”
Mt. Hermon stayed in the game thanks to the 3-point shooting of Michquell Spears, who hit four 3-pointers and a free throw during a run which whittled the lead to 73-72 with under three minutes to play.
“We want to play fast,” DuBois said. “I think we’re best when we’re able to play fast, but of course when we play fast, we also want to play smart, and I think in that stretch it wasn’t necessarily how fast we were playing, but we weren’t playing super, super smart.”
After Holden missed a pair of shots, Mount Hermon grabbed the rebound but turned the ball over on an in-bounds pass after winning a jump ball. That enabled the Rockets to work the ball around before Forbes was fouled and hit two free throws for a 75-72 lead.
A putback by Litolff put the Rockets ahead 77-72 with 37.6 seconds to play, and the Yellowjackets went cold from the floor.
Forbes hit two more free throws with 22.8 seconds left before Holden pulled down a defensive rebound, setting up Litolff’s slam dunk to end the game.
“I knew those free throws were really important, because they didn’t back off and they kept pressure on us,” said Forbes, who went 8-for-11 from the line in the game, including 6-for-6 in the fourth quarter. “I knew I had to make these free throws. No. 2 (Spears), he was hitting a lot of threes, and I knew if I didn’t make them, he was going to put them ahead in the game. Those were really important shots I needed.”
Spears had 25 points with eight 3-pointers, and Mount Hermon hit 10 in the game.
The Rockets fought back from a 38-37 halftime deficit – Mount Hermon’s first lead of the game -- which expanded to 47-40 on Spears’ 3-pointer.
Holden clawed back, taking advantage of turnovers as Mount Hermon went into its half-court offense, and a Forbes free throw cut the lead to 47-45 with 3:15 to go in the fourth quarter.
The Yellowjackets pulled ahead 51-45 before Gueldner’s inside basket keyed a 16-2 run to end the third quarter, putting the Rockets up 61-53 heading into the fourth.
“When we sat down for the third quarter, that was it,” Litolff said. “That was the best third quarter of the year, and when we had that, that was what we needed, so if we can keep that going, we should be pretty good.”
Holden got going early when Coley Courtney hit a pair of 3-pointers during an 8-0 run to start the game. Mount Hermon got within 15-13 on Travell Brumfield’s basket, but Litolff and Gueldner combined for six straight points to close out the quarter, giving Holden a 21-13 lead.
“We just felt like they just out-physicaled us in every phase of the game, and that’s something we can’t allow to happen, so we talked about it,” DuBois said of the first meeting between the teams. “The kids talked about it, and they decided to make a stand tonight that they were not going to be less physical than them, and I think they did that, especially starting up in the first quarter.”
Gueldner said there was a different vibe around the team coming into the game.
“A big part of our game – just our group – is hype, and we haven’t really been hyped these last few games,” he said. “I could tell everybody was in it. They wanted to be in it. They were all a part of it. It was a big team win. (There) was no selfish play. We had three guys in double figures. That’s big. It’s hard to beat teams who can do that.”
Mount Hermon cut the lead to 21-20 on a free throw by Tevin Williams, who had 15 points with eight coming in the second quarter. Williams picked up his third foul before halftime and fouled out late in the game.
The YellowJackets tied the game at 33-33 on Tristan Brumfield’s 3-pointer, but a three-point play from Gueldner gave the Rockets the lead again. Litolff’s free throw made the score 37-35 before Spears hit a 3-pointer, giving Mount Hermon its first lead of the game at halftime.
“We didn’t get fazed at all by it,” Gueldner said of trailing at halftime. “Everybody was still smiling. Everybody was still hyped. Everybody was still invested in the game. They knew what we had to do. We weren’t worried one bit. We knew if we played together and kept doing what we were doing the whole game, we’d get it right back, and that’s what we did.”