Hill ‘blessed’ and ‘thankful’ for his sensational career

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In what was the year of the Panther, Kyle Hill was in a class of his own, the best of the best, among the elite in the nation.

The 6-foot 2 inch guard from Summit, Ill. led arugably the best basketball team in Eastern’s history to a dramatic Ohio Valley Conference tournament title and a berth in the NCAA Tournament. And he did it on a level of his own. For that reason he was selected as The Daily Eastern News’ Male Top Cat Athlete of the Year.

“I’m priveleged and blessed to have this honor,” Hill said. “I just remember when (former basketball player) Rick Kaye got it my freshman year and I hoped that maybe someday I would be good enought to get it.”

Hill was more than good enough in a year where Panther athletics had many great standouts.

“A lot of people had good years, Bialka, Thompson, Henry Domercant … there’s so many of them,” he said. “It’s just an honor to add another great accolade to a great year.”

“I’m excited for him,” Panther head coach Rick Samuels said. “It’s a great honor and he’s obviously a good choice.”

Hill’s teammate, Domercant who had a stellar year of his own, said no one is more deserving than his partner in scoring

success.

“This is a great honor for him and it’s well deserved,” Domercant said. “He’s done a lot of great things for this team and university on and off the court.

“He’s a leader by example and he’s just done so many things for this program, not only this year, but his entire career,” he said. “He’s had a great influence on my game and I’ve learned from all the great things he has done and I’ve also learned from some of his mistakes.”

Hill didn’t make many mistakes this season as he finished the season as the nation’s No. 2 scorer, averaging 23.8 points per game. The senior out of Argo High School was named First Team All-OVC, the Most Valuable Player of the OVC Tournament, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale’s National Player of the Week, the Eastern Illinois Chevrolet Player of the Game against Arizona in the NCAA Tournament and the MVP of the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-Star game MVP at the Final Four.

And the list goes on. Hill also broke numerous school and personal bests. He led the conference in scoring, broke the single-season scoring average at Eastern, became Eastern’s No. 2 all-time scorer with 1,819 points and moved up to No. 2 in single-season points with 737.

Not to mention Hill scored a career-high 40 points in his final home game against Morehead State, which included hitting his final shot at Lantz Gym – a 25-foot off-balance three-pointer.

“I’ll remember several plays he made, like a lot of those lob dunks, but the last three-pointer he hit at Lantz I’ll always remember,” Domercant said. “With the shot clock about to go off, he pulls up for a shot way past NBA range and hits it.

“That gave him his 40 points and just seeing the look on his face afterwards … I’ll always remember that.”

Perhaps Hill’s most amazing performance was a 31-point effort against Austin Peay in the championship game of the OVC tournament championship game. Hill knocked down amazing shot after amazing shot, pulling Eastern back from a 21-point deficit to go on the NCAA Tournament.

“There’s two flashbacks I’ll always have about Kyle in that game,” Samuels said. “The big smile on his face at the end and the determined look on his face when our team began to rally and Austin Peay called a timeout.

“It was not only I who saw that look on his face, but the whole team saw that determined look,” he said. “And of course, I’ll remember every jump shot he made down the stretch and his passes to Craig Lewis and his lob to Henry.”

It was perhaps one of his ugliest shots of his season that Hill said he’ll remember the most. With time running down and Eastern down by one in that fateful championship game, Hill took a jumpshot which fell short, hitting the bottom of the backboard, allowing Jan Thompson to release a putback shot that was goaltended, sending the Panthers to the Big Dance.

“I’ll remember the goaltend,” he said. “The shot wasn’t pretty, but Jan got it in there.”

Hill then went on to score 32 points in a losing effort against Arizona in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was a performance that introduced Hill to the rest of the basketball nation.

“He played simply at the level he had played at for the last four or five weeks,” Samuels said. “He was confident and comfortable and got into the rhthym o fhte game and was able to take it to that other level and sustain it for the entire game.”

Samuels it was Hill’s dedication and resilliance that has put Hill among the nation’s best.

“He’s special and certainly we’ve watched Kyle grow over his four years here,” Samuels said. “He’s a kid who stuck with it and overcame a tough start to blossom into one of the best players in the country, literally.”

Hill has become so good that he has transformed from a little-known mid-major star to a legitimate pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

“We’ve heard from several NBA teams, and actually an agent just called and wants me to fax some things to him,” said Dave Kidwell, Eastern’s assistant athletic director for marketing and sports information. “There’s no question he’ll get drafted or at least play in a top-notch European league. If he’s not drafted, he may want to be a free agent because he’s a great player.”

Samuels believes Hill’s pro chances look good, but says his senior guard needs to continue to prove himself.

“The NBA’s helping him with now allowing zone defenses,

because that puts shooting at a premium,” he said. “And boy, he can shoot the ball.

“But I really still think he needs to make it,” Samuels said. “He needs to continue to impress people, and people need to see he’s a kid that will continue to become better and better as he continues to play at a higher level everyday.”

The way Hill’s seen transcended is something neither he nor his coach could ever have dreamed of.

“As I told Kyle this week, who would have thought it? Who would have thought he’d have made the plays he’s made and reached the level he has? Who would have imagined it?” Samuels said. “There were games where Kyle did things where we we’re looking at each other saying, `Did he just do that? Did I just see what I thought I saw,'”

“He made plays, like that one-handed lob dunk against Morehead State, that were simply incredible.”

“I never thought I’d accomplish what I’ve done this year,” Hill said. “I never dreamed of this year being this great.

“I hoped it would be good, but I never expected it would turn out like it has,” he said. “I’m very happy and very happy with the way this year turned out.”

Hill was so spectacular for his 21-year head coach to call him one of the very best players he’s every coached.

“He’s certainly one of the five best players to play here,” Samuels said. “There’s only one player, Jay Taylor who was the No. 1 all-time scorer, that was able to be as exciting a player as Kyle has been. And I’m not even sure Jay Taylor had as exciting a senior year as Kyle has,” he said.

Wherever Hill goes in life, whether he’s an NBA All-Star or blows out his knee ending his career, the senior says his final year at Eastern will always be one of his fondest memories.

“It’s just been such a great year I can’t even put it into words,” he said. “I’m blessed that so many great things have happened to me.

“In my four years here, I’ve just been happy to be a part of EIU,” Hill said. “I’ll always remember it and be thankful, because you never know what can happen.”