THE COLONY — The wait was worth it for the Hebron boys basketball team.
The Hawks waited eight days to determine their postseason fate in Saturday’s play-in game against Plano for the final playoff spot out of District 6-6A — an opportunity they didn’t let go to waste. Despite some anxious moments on both sides across an evenly contested rubber match, Hebron got the better of a 43-39 verdict at The Colony High School to secure the program’s fifth playoff berth in six years.
Saturday’s game marked the third meeting of the year between the Wildcats and Hawks, who split their regular-season series before tying for fourth place at 7-7 in 6-6A. In those two meetings, Plano totaled 94 points to Hebron’s 90 — naturally, neither team afforded the other much comfort on Saturday.
Following eight leads changes, Hebron and Plano were tied at 35-35 midway through the fourth quarter. The Wildcats slowed the tempo and burned more than a minute off the game clock before attempting a shot — a moment that gave way to a 20-second jolt that gave the Hawks enough of a cushion to sway momentum in their favor for good.
A miss in the lane by Plano led a fast-break for Hebron, with sophomore Nate Mercer finding sophomore Alex Cotton for a layup to reclaim the lead at 37-35.
The Wildcats tried to quickly respond but came up empty on a look inside. The Hawks again raced up the court with senior Grayson Allo side-stepping the Wildcats’ defense for a layup of his own and a two-score lead with 2:10 to play.
Cotton added a pair of free throws for a 41-35 advantage before near-disaster struck for the Hawks. After scoring a bucket to pull within four points, Plano deployed its press defense to force a Hebron turnover that resulted a put-back by junior Savion Miles to make it 41-39. Staying in their press, the Wildcats baited the Hawks into another turnover with just over 30 seconds to play.
With a chance at a tie or the lead, Plano couldn’t convert and was forced to foul senior David Deal, who sank two free throws with 12 seconds left to regain a two-score advantage for the Hawks at 43-39.
“I told them during the timeout what we’d have to run if he missed, but David is going to make them so it doesn’t matter,” said Eric Reil, Hebron head coach. “I knew he was knocking them down. Some kids just have it and there was never a doubt when he got to the free throw line.”
“We got a great look. It’s not like it wasn’t a great shot. Coach (Reil) does a real good job over there with keeping his kids disciplined and playing hard,” said Dean Christian, Plano head coach. “You know they won’t hurt themselves and they showed that today. We were able to get in position to tie it with some full-court pressure, which we applied late and got a couple turnovers.”
Christian said ultimately, the Wildcats weren’t as sharp as they needed to be given the weight of Saturday’s ballgame. Plano battled turnover issues in the middle two quarters, including a number opportunities in transition, and struggled to finish inside against Hebron’s rangy frontcourt.
The Wildcats had a bit more success stretching the defense behind five 3-pointers, including two apiece from juniors Xavier Williams and Makhi Dorsey. Williams led all scorers with 16 points and Dorsey added seven — the duo connected for a Williams corner triple with 5:01 left to give Plano a 34-33 edge for its final lead of the night.
Hebron, meanwhile, was paced by a combined 24 points from the sophomore tandem of Cotton (15 points) and Mercer (nine). Cotton scored 11 of his points in the second half, catching fire from deep with a pair of triples in the third quarter to regain the advantage for the Hawks after Plano had led at the half, 22-20.
“I don’t consider them sophomores anymore because they’ve had a full year of varsity ball,” Reil said. “They’re the future of the Hawks. That’s the next wave of kids that people are going to be talking about. It might have surprised some in the stands just how good those two can really be, but we’ve got six sophomores on varsity. That group is going to be a factor in the coming years.”
Several of those players steered the Hawks back into the playoffs after missing out last season, which snapped a four-year run of postseason appearances.
“By the end of last year, eight of our top 12 were out because of concussions or getting in trouble or whatever,” Reil said. “For them to make these strides with no offseason — with this group, we have two kids who were returning varsity players, so for them to dig deep and get a playoff berth is so exciting.”
The Hawks will next meet McKinney, ranked No. 8 in Class 6A by the Texas Association of Basketball Coaches, at a time and place to be determined in the bi-district round of the playoffs. Plano, meanwhile, falls short of a return to the postseason and finishes its year at 11-14.
“We let them know the season wasn’t a bust. They really did some fantastic things when you think about where we started from,” Christian said. “Right now, it might not feel like it but they had a really successful season. They came a long way and got better everyday.”