Decade’s best No. 5: Ali Hillson was a winner at North Penn-Mansfield in girls basketball
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a series looking back at the Top 10 girls basketball teams, coaches, games and players from the last decade.
Ali Hillson was a consummate winner while playing at North Penn-Mansfield. A four-year starter and two-time Class A all-state selection, Hillson helped the Tigers win 80 games, two District 4 championships, a league title and record three 20-win seasons.
How ironic then that her final loss perfectly captured what made Hillson so good and so valuable. The Tigers were playing budding state power Mahanoy Area in the 2016 state tournament’s second round when Hillson hit the floor hard and suffered a painful back injury midway through the second quarter. Hillson went to the locker room and did not return until after her teammates already had come back out for the third quarter. She followed a few minutes later, but did not warm up.
And yet Hillson played the entire second half and nearly willed North Penn-Mansfield back from a 20-point fourth-quarter deficit. Playing against a team which allowed just 32 points per game, Hillson scored 16 straight points, including 14 consecutive in the fourth quarter. She made five straight fourth-quarter shots, including four long-range 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 22 points. Mahanoy held on, but Hillson was never defeated.
This was her last high school game and it symbolized her entire scholastic career. Hillson was talented, but maybe even tougher. She was a leader, a big-game player and Hillson was the athlete who helped one of the decade’s top teams go year after year.
“I was definitely thinking, ‘Put me back in, I need to go back in,'” Hillson said afterward. “I’ll play through it.”
“That’s who she is. People just think she’s a skilled basketball player, but they don’t understand how unbelievably competitive she is and the heart she has,” North Penn-Mansfield coach Jason Dominick said. “It often becomes overlooked because she will make a pass look so easy or a shot look so easy, but her desire to win and be with her teammates more than showed in the last eight minutes of the game.”
It showed every time she played form 2012-16 as well.
Hillson produced one of the best careers in program history, earning second team all-state honors twice as well as being a three-time NTL first team selection and two-time Sun-Gazette first team selection. In addition to scoring 1,400 points, Hillson added 345 rebounds, 311 assists and 247 steals as North Penn-Mansfield increased its win total each year, capturing district championships in 2015 and 2016.
“It was such a fun experience. I can’t imagine going through high school without basketball and my team. It has really made me the person I am today,” Hillson said in 2016. “I am beyond happy. When I was younger I wanted to win a district title and to have two is just awesome.”
When Hillson was younger she also was trying to emulate her older siblings Taylor and Jackie, both standout athletes at Mansfield. Her younger brother Kipp also pushed her hard and competitiveness among the family spread to the court, helping making Hillson the player she was.
A player who loved competing in the big games never shied away from pressure situations. Going for family bragging rights and trying to keep up with her siblings prepared her well for all those moments she would encounter throughout high school.
“I’ve learned toughness,” Hillson said after a spectacular state tournament performance against Halifax in 2015. “I used to play against them and you have to be tough and it helps in games like these.”
“Battling with her older siblings has made her a great athlete,” Dominick said. “People don’t realize how good that kid is.”
They started realizing it by Hillson’s sophomore season. Following a strong debut season, Hillson really blossomed as a sophomore, moving to point guard and helping the Tigers make a seven-win improvement. North Penn-Mansfield went 20-6 and Hillson averaged 15.5 points, five rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.0 steals per game. The Tigers reached the district semifinals, but lost there and in the third-place game, missing states.
Hillson would make sure that did not happen again over her final two seasons. The production remained constant all four years, but it was as a junior when Hillson became an ideal leader. She set the tone in practice and played every game as if it was the deciding game of the WNBA Finals. Her mentality was shared throughout the team and North Penn-Mansfield went 22-6, capturing its first district championship since 2006.
“We have practice consequences for mistakes and the last few years Ali would kind of shuffle off and try and get out of doing that. Now she embraces it because she realizes it makes her tougher,” Dominick said that year. “That’s just her nature. She has really grown up such a great deal and taken the next step to being an elite player.”
Another step was taken by consistently playing her best games against the strongest competition. Hillson shined against both Lourdes and Millville, calmly running the offense late in the games as both frantically tried pressuring her to force turnovers.
States also brought out the best in Hillson who took over the game against Halifax, a 2014 state quarterfinalist. Hillson scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds and dealt five assists, helping North Penn-Mansfield erase a six-point third-quarter deficit and win, 46-42. It was more of the same a few days later against District 11 champion Minersville as North Penn-Mansfield became the first and only area girls team to reach the state quarterfinals last decade.
“When it’s crunch time she’s like, ‘give me the ball and get out of the way. I’m going to make a play and we’re going to win the game,'” Dominick said. “If we don’t win she’s like, ‘I’m OK with it because I want the pressure.’ That’s her. She wants the big moment. She’s been that way since the fifth grade.”
“I love playing hard games like these,” Hillson said. “I’ve given up a lot of things for that, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
North Penn-Mansfield wouldn’t trade Hillson for anything either. Earning all-state honors as a junior only further motivated her as a senior. The defending district champions were a marked team all season, but Hillson and her teammates handled the pressure well and finished 25-4, capturing both the NTL-I and NTL Tournament championships. Hillson averaged 15.0 points, 3.9 assists and 2.8 steals per game, numbers that would have been higher had the Tigers not so frequently blown out opponents that season.
And again, Hillson shined on the big stage, playing outstanding games throughout the postseason. Her late assist to Sara Wolbert helped North Penn-Mansfield take a lead it never relinquished in a 42-38 district championship win against eventual state finalist Lourdes. It was more of the same against Christian School of York in states before Hillson left an indelible image as she courageously fought through the pain against Mahanoy Area and took the game over in the fourth quarter. Performances like those had become the norm and helped Hillson again earn all-state honors.
“It’s very exciting being able to get it two years in a row. It feels like all the hard work paid off,” Hillson said. “I never really thought about all-state until I got it as a junior. I just played to win and always wanted to be better. We had a great season and there’s nothing more you can ask than that.”
North Penn-Mansfield certainly could not ask for more than Hillson produced.