The morning of Post Falls High's biggest boys basketball game of the season to date, senior guard Connor Hill, the Trojans' top scorer, got the challenge from his coach via text message.
"Tonight's game is going to be you vs. him (Lewiston guard Matt Kalbfleisch," Post Falls coach Mike McLean said. "And you must shut him down. We can't trade baskets, you must shut him down because he is the guy that makes Lewiston go."
Hill's response - "I got him."
That night Hill held Kalbfleisch, who had scored 23 points the night before against Coeur d'Alene, to just one basket and four points, and Post Falls won 59-43 to qualify for this week's state 5A tournament at the Idaho Center in Nampa.
"That was my mindset - I was just focused on shutting him down," said Hill, who scored 14 points - seven below his average - in the game, while his teammates picked up the offensive slack. "I was pretty excited that he would ask me to do that. I usually help my team by scoring, but shutting down the other team's best player is almost a better satisfaction than scoring 30."
Hill averages 21.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.2 steals for Post Falls (19-4), which opens defense of its state championship Thursday at 7 p.m. PST vs. Borah (18-5) of Boise.
"That's the latest progression this year - he can be a lockdown defender," McLean said. "I think he's always been capable, and he's always been a good defender. But I think he's just now realizing that he can dominate a game at either end of the court, or both."
Hill is second on Post Falls' all-time scoring list with 1,129 points, trailing only Scott Stockwell with 1,398. But no one has played in more boys basketball varsity victories at Post Falls than Hill, who had played in 67.
HILL IS 6-foot-3, 180 pounds now, but was only about 5-6, 130 when he was called up to the varsity as a freshman, after playing the first seven games on the junior varsity. The two teams often practice together and “we couldn’t guard him,” McLean recalled.
In his varsity debut, Hill got the start and was introduced to the increased physicality that comes with playing at a higher level. Running down the sideline in front of the benches, McLean recalled that Hill “kinda got removed from the court, kinda forceably, into their (the Vikings’) bench.”
Recalled Hill: “I was already nervous as it was. I don’t remember who it was, but I was running the court, and it was after I hit a few 3s, and I remember he grabbed my jersey and flung me into their bench. I hit the bleachers, and I remember at halftime I got chewed out by coach.”
Said McLean: “I told him if he’s going to be a good player in this league, he can’t take that from anybody, and that’s what they’re going to try to do to him — get inside his head. Ever since then, he’s held his own. Back then, he probably really couldn’t.
“I’m sure he was very nervous (at the time) ... but in the long run, that might have been the best thing that ever happened to him,” McLean added. “They kinda did their thing on him, and since then he’s had a quiet confidence, and he’s very confident in what he can do.”
Said Hill: “It was a learning experience that helped me develop into what I am now.”
Aside from coming off the bench sometimes as a sophomore, Hill has been a starter throughout his Trojan career.
HILL WAS born in Spokane, and grew up in nearby Nine Mile Falls before moving to Post Falls before his sixth-grade year. Hill’s dad, Kirk, a builder/developer, bought 10 acres on the Spokane River, and on the property he built a shop for his work trucks. Prior to Connor’s freshman year, as part of the shop, he built an indoor basketball court for Connor and his two younger siblings.
The court is about 8 feet short of regulation length, but has been a place for Connor to hone his jump shot, and has been home for some pretty good pickup games — including Hill’s high school teammates, the AAU team he plays on in the summer, the Eastern Washington Elite, as well as some pickup games with Gonzaga players, including Steven Gray and David Stockton.
It was Kirk who, after Connor’s freshman year, encouraged him to develop a higher release point on his jump shot, the better to get it off in traffic.
“He can flat shoot the basketball,” McLean said. “I’ve never coached or been around a player that can flat shoot it, and make tough shots, like he can. He’s not a set shooter ... he has a college basketball jump shot. And growing up, he wasn’t the biggest kid and he had to learn to get a quick release to get that shot off.”
A shooter when he first hit the varsity, Hill has added the ability to take defenders off the dribble and, as Saturday’s game suggests, the ability to be a defensive stopper when needed.
“What is Connor?” McLean said. “He is a shooter, but he’s also a great teammate. He’s not a numbers guy; he is not a ‘me’ guy at all. He is very humble and gracious. He’s just one of the guys on the court, and he’s just one of the guys off the court.”
Washington State has invited him to be a preferred walk-on with the Cougars next year. Idaho is also heavily recruiting him, and is expected to offer a scholarship following the state tournament.
Hill said he isn’t sure which school he will choose — both have strong business programs, and Connor wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a builder/developer.
“It’s all about playing time,” Hill said. “I want to play. “It’s all about working hard, and I know if I work hard, I’ll get my chance.”
Connor Hill has attracted recruiting interests from Washington State University and the University of Idaho and the Post Falls High School's second-leading scorer.