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ROD VEAL, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Tustin center Nick Hornsby battles a Cypress player for position under the basket while going after a rebound Wednesday. Hornsby finished the game with 25 points and 13 rebounds.

Tustin's Hornsby takes it to higher level

OCVARSITY.COM

TUSTIN – Nick Hornsby has been playing AAU basketball since the third grade, a fact even more remarkable considering how he actually plays basketball.

"Get rebounds, get assists, get blocks," is how Hornsby summed up his top priorities.

That's hardly the first (or second, or third) trait associated with the year-round travel league. And it's not like Hornsby, at 6-foot-6 and 185 pounds, can't score. The Tustin senior dribbles like a point guard, posts up like a center and has an improving midrange jumper, possessing one of the most unique, wide-ranging skill sets of any player in the county.

Surely, he must have the urge to come out firing and score 40 points sometimes, right?

"Definitely," Hornsby said. "But it's more team first. If I'm feeling it, I'm still going to get my team involved. I don't want to be a ball hog and just do what I want to do.

"We're trying to get to the point of winning league and getting to CIF (playoffs). As long as we get the win, that's perfectly fine with me."

Oh, so that's what this is about.

Hornsby transferred to Tustin from Beckman two years ago, looking to be a scorer first and everything else second. He earned significant playing time on varsity as a sophomore but came away totally dissatisfied when the Tillers finished below .500, fifth in the Empire League and one-and-done in the playoffs.

"It wasn't what I expected," he said. "I don't want to fail. I knew somebody was going to have to step up."

'A SPECIAL PLAYER'

Tustin coach Ringo Bossenmeyer was a fly on the wall, watching from a distance as some of his players took part in a pick-up game a few months after the 2010-11 season. He'll never forget how Hornsby, still just a sophomore, created his own shot, found open teammates, controlled the boards and seemed to see the floor one play ahead of everyone else.

"You could just see his game expanding." Bossenmeyer said. "You knew you had a special player on your hands."

Last season, Hornsby embraced a different role every night while playing any one of the five positions on both ends of the floor. Tustin, aptly, went 23-7, unbeaten in league and reached the CIF-Southern Section Division 3AAA quarterfinals. Hornsby was selected to the Register's All-County third team.

He has been even better this season, as has Tustin. Hornsby, who has accepted a Division I scholarship offer from Sacramento State, is averaging team-highs of 16.5 points and 9.2 rebounds, with 3.1 assists for the No. 5 Tillers (17-2, 4-0).

Hornsby has earned the praise of his peers in the process.

"He really rose to the occasion against us," said Mater Dei coach Gary McKnight, who saw Hornsby hold his own against a loaded Monarchs squad some consider the best in the nation. "I thought he played smart."

Edison coach Rich Boyce, whose Chargers allowed 24 points to Hornsby in a season-opening loss to Tustin, added: "He was the best player in the game without being flashy. He made it look so effortless. He didn't force anything. He strikes me as one of the ultimate team players."

TIME TO TAKE OVER

Never was that more evident than in the past week.

Hornsby had just seen his team commit a turnover and give up an offensive rebound after two missed free throws after surrendering a five-point lead to Cypress. It was a forgettable sequence for Tustin.

"I felt like we needed to kick it up to another level," Hornsby recalled. "Just open the doors and just go. That was my feeling, like, we need to get this lead up."

So up it went.

With half a minute remaining in the first quarter and the score tied, Hornsby grabbed a defensive rebound. On the opposite end, he made a backdoor cut, receiving the ball under the basket and flanked by three defenders. Hornsby turned to his right, pump-faked two of them out of their shoes and spun to his left, his head pointed virtually opposite of the basket as he converted a reverse layup to beat the buzzer.

Then Hornsby took over.

On Cypress' first possession of the second quarter, Hornsby grabbed another defensive rebound, dribbled upcourt, crossed over a defender at the top of the key, then made a running floater going to his left, drawing a foul for the and-one. He soon grabbed another defensive rebound, again dribbled upcourt and crossed over to his left at the top of the key, only this time he finished with a spin move and layup over three defenders.

A moment later, he grabbed a fourth consecutive rebound and passed it off as Tustin worked the ball around. The possession ended with Hornsby driving to the middle of the key, badly pump-faking one defender and dropping a 10-footer over another.

In two minutes, Hornsby had single-handedly given his team a nine-point lead.

"You put Hornsby in there and all of a sudden it's a whole 'nother ballgame," Cypress coach Jeff Russell said. "I don't know too many guys like him. He's a special player. I'm sure (Bossenmeyer) is enjoying his last few games. I won't be sad to see him leave."

Hornsby finished Wednesday's game with 25 points — he had more than half his team's total at one point in the fourth quarter — and 13 rebounds. He attempted only 12 shots, making nine.

Bossenmeyer called it "his best overall game of the season," but Hornsby's performance two days earlier in a victory against Pacifica is the coach's favorite. The Mariners double-teamed Hornsby throughout and he didn't hesitate to defer on offense. He finished with 13 rebounds, five assists and three blocked shots, while teammate Deondre Bryant scored a Tustin season-high 29 points.

Tustin nearly matched its season-high in points in the 75-55 victory. Hornsby was the team's fifth-leading scorer, with a season-low seven points.

"As proud as I've ever been of him," Bossenmeyer said. "He understood that he'd have to let somebody else have the spotlight that night. The only thing we talk about is letting the game come to him. When he does that, he's one of the elite players in the county."

And, most importantly to Hornsby, that helps Tustin remain one of the elite teams.

Contact the writer: amaya@ocregister.com


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