Bender delivers through the pain on Hillcrest Senior Night

By Paul D. Bowker
Posted 1/28/23

The painful moment came early in Hillcrest Academy’s boys basketball game against Lone Tree on Jan. 17.

“Two minutes into the game,” Hillcrest senior forward Grant Bender said, …

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Bender delivers through the pain on Hillcrest Senior Night


The painful moment came early in Hillcrest Academy’s boys basketball game against Lone Tree on Jan. 17.

“Two minutes into the game,” Hillcrest senior forward Grant Bender said, “I just landed on it completely wrong. I think I got hit in the air or maybe stepped on someone’s foot.”

Bender’s ankle was in a healing boot for the next three days. It wasn’t exactly the way that Hillcrest’s top scorer and rebounder wanted to approach Senior Night last Friday, Jan. 20, when the Ravens hosted Louisa-Muscatine.

Would Senior Night consist of hobbling toward center court with his mom and dad during a pregame ceremony? And then spend the rest of the night watching from the team bench?

That was the fear.

An hour before the game, even head coach Dwight Gingerich wasn’t sure if Bender would play.

“I think, even though I sprained it, I knew I was going to at least step on the court tonight,” Bender said, laughing. “Unless it was an absolute no. I wasn’t very fearful that I wasn’t going to play, even through the pain.”

Oh, the pain.

Bender joined senior teammates Luke Schrock, Jace Rempel and Josiah Beachy at center court for that pregame ceremony at Hillcrest Union, and then joined them on court for a Friday night battle between two Southeast Iowa Super Conference North rivals.

Nearly two hours later, in the midst of a one-point game, Bender was the central focus of a dramatic finish that included not one or two, but three Louisa-Muscatine defenders trying to shut down a guy playing on a painful ankle.

Certainly, Bender felt it.

“There was probably like four minutes left,” he said. “Breath was really hard. Catch your breath. Ankle’s throbbing a little and it’s like, we’ve got to win this game.”

“Grant played his heart out tonight,” Gingerich said. “You could just tell that he wanted it bad. He gave us a fighting chance.”

Bender came out of the game just once, for a minute and 17 seconds in the second quarter. He scored seven consecutive points in the opening quarter. In the fourth quarter, as the game heated up, Bender scored eight consecutive points and had a steal in a stretch that put the Ravens in front by a point, 39-38.

Double coverage by Louisa-Muscatine defenders turned into triple coverage. All to cover a guy whose left ankle was wrapped tightly in an ankle brace.

“Pretty much running off of adrenaline the whole game,” Bender said.

What else would you expect from a Raven who embraced jumped into the scoring role a year ago as a junior. Grant’s dad, Stephen, a Hillcrest assistant coach, looked on proudly as Grant became one of the leading scorers (18.3 points per game) and rebounders (6.3 per game) in the SEISC North last year as a power forward and helped lead the Ravens to a 15-win season just one year after he was a guard averaging 5.6 points per game.

“My sophomore year, I was just a twig,” Grant Bender said. “I was like, ‘I don’t want to be this any more.’ So I started lifting a lot with my brother, Mason, and my friends. It’s helped me a lot be more physical, go in for fouls even when they’re not called.”

“He’s just continued to grow,” Gingerich said. “Two years ago, he was kind of a skinny kid. About 5-8. He’s really worked to become stronger. He’s been in the weight room. He’s worked hard to develop his skills. He’s passionate about the game and you can tell that’s how he plays. He plays with a lot of energy and a lot of joy.”

That passion for hoops was on display last Friday night.

With the final seconds ticking down, and Hillcrest trailing by one, 47-46, the ball went to Bender in the paint. Ankle sprain? What ankle? With three players between him and the basket, there was no shot. Bender, who is now 6-foot-3, somehow fought his way out of that maze and passed the ball to a teammate on the perimeter.

The shot went up.

It clanged off the rim as the game-ending buzzer sounded.

It happens.

No storybook finish this time.

“He’s probably more bummed out than anybody that he missed a few free throws,” Gingerich said of Bender. “He feels bad about it. But his effort was absolutely tremendous.”

Bender scored a game-high 26 points that night. And the next day, the Ravens outscored West Liberty, a Class 2A team, 23-6 in the opening quarter on the way to a 59-51 win.

Maybe not such a bad finish at all.

News columnist Paul Bowker can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @bowkerpaul

Hillcrest Academy, basketball, Senior Night, Grant Bender