Inserted in the starting five because Rob Kurz was unable to go after suffering a broken nose in practice Sunday evening, the 6-foot-9, 227-pound Hillesland showed why coach Mike Brey and his teammates love him, filling the stat sheet with seven points, four rebounds, two blocks and a team-high five assists in 23 minutes.
With the experience on the frontline last season, Hillesland was the odd man out of the rotation, appearing in just 13 games totaling 29 minutes. The graduation of Torin Francis and Rick Cornett opened the door for Hillesland, who showed all summer and fall his ability to handle the basketball, defend, make free throws, on top of knowing the system well and helping the five freshman understand where they are supposed to be on offense and defense.
Kurz will be back for the season opener Friday against Indiana Purdue-Fort Wayne, but expect Hillesland to log roughly the same amount of minutes he did in the two exhibitions.
"I don't know what position he plays, but he's a heck of a basketball player," Brey said. "He can guard anybody and he certainly can cause the big guys problems. And he's really good with the basketball. He can rebound, pass, make the free throws, and get his hands on stuff.
"He's one of those guys who doesn't start for us, but even if he doesn't start he's going to be a finisher."
Hillesland, showed his energy early, scoring the game's first basket. The next minute he was blocking a put back. A minute later, he was getting fouled on a lay-up in transition. He made both freebies.
"That's my role on the team, just do the little things here and there to make us better," Hillesland said. "Just be active on both ends of the court and make things go.
"It's been a year and a half plus since I've been in the starting lineup, so it's been an exciting experience."
*Kurz, who will be back to practice Wednesday, is getting fitted for a mask this week. Maybe everyone should get fitted for a mask when going against freshman Luke Harangody in practice.
The 6-foot-8 Harangody, there is no mistaking who the enforcer is, busted Kurz's nose helping out on defense. Last week it was Hillesland's nose that was broken. Kyle McAlarney had to get a couple staples in his head courtesy of Harangody. All in the last 10 days.
Harangody, who led the Irish with 17 points in the first exhibition contest, followed that up with nine points and a team-high nine rebounds. Luke Zeller also had nine rebounds.
"I said, I don't know what your quota is for noses, I hope it's about 20," Brey began. "The other 17 have to be in the Big East. No more of our guys.
"He is just one of those guys that if you brush up against him, you're going to feel it. He gives us a great presence there."
"He's so hard on himself when he makes a mistake," Brey later said. "I just want him to smile a little."
*To be competitive this season, as usual, the Irish are going to have hit the 3-point shot and make most of their free throws. They were certainly dangerous from the perimeter against Bellarmine, draining 10-of-18 (55.6 percent). Six different players were in on the act.
"If we get clean looks, we got guys who can really clean up out there," Brey stated. The Irish made eight-of-11 from the arc in the first half. "In the first half, they really doubled the post a lot so it really presented itself for us to get a lot of good looks."
At the line, the Irish made 21-of-30 attempts (70 percent).
"I think we can shoot better than that," Brey said.
*In the seven-year Brey era, the Irish have played a lot of zone defense. The zone is something that will only be seen occasionally now, and when they go to it, it will be with man principles. More helping out. The Irish will be playing more man-to-man defense than any other time since Brey's arrival.
"You gotta kind of see what's in the wind that night," Brey said. "I think these exhibitions, our man-to-man habits are really important. I try to tell us when we go zone stay in a man-to-man stance and still help each other."
"I thought tonight we had a great flurry in the first half with full-court pressure with trapping," Brey later said. The Irish forced 22 turnovers, 13 in the first half. "That's something we've wanted to add this year in making it a little chaotic."
"We need to be able to play 2-3 zone and be smart about it."
*Luke Zeller avoided early fouls that plagued him last year, and scored a team-high 15 points. He also got a lot of his points near the basket, including a dunk in the face of a Bellarmine defender in the second half.
"We strapped him inside in practice and he was starting to get into a rhythm," Brey said. "Sean Kearney has done a hell of a job with him, Luke H, and Kurz, just taking those guys and doing stuff with them.
"In the pickup games he knew to start inside and start working himself out. I think he's found a nice rhythm. I think his shot selection tonight, you love the balance."
The 6-foot-11, 245-pound Zeller also had two blocks and zero turnovers.
*Brey said he feels good about a nine-man rotation right now. The starters will be Kurz and Zeller inside with guards Colin Falls, Russell Carter and McAlarney on the perimeter. The key guys off the pine are Hillesland, Harangody, 6-foot-8 guard Ryan Ayers and freshman point guard Tory Jackson.
Freshman Joe Harden could play his way into the mix. The 6-foot-7 slasher finished the game with a two-handed slam. He also showed his range by draining a 3-pointer, finishing with five points.
"You can see Joe Harden is going to be a good basketball player for us," Brey said. "When that is who knows. It can be sooner rather than later."