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Wichita, KS (westernkansasnews.com)-Entering Sunday afternoon’s Region VI quarterfinal, Hutchinson had found themselves in precarious positions before.
Four times during the regular season, the Blue Dragons overcame double-digit deficits to win games, including a 17-point come-from-behind victory vs. North Lake back in December.
Against Garden City, they put themselves in another precarious spot. Although this time, it was their own undoing that nearly cost them. The Broncbusters totally flipped the script, and nearly pulled off one of the biggest second-half comebacks in tournament history.
Samajae Jones recorded his eighth 20-point game of the season with 23 on 7-of-10 shooting, Bashir Ahmed added 17, and the top-seeded Blue Dragons avoided a complete collapse over the final 12 minutes to finish off Garden City 77-71 at Hartman Arena.
The loss sent the Broncbusters home for good. The win moves the Blue Dragons into the Region VI semifinals vs. Cowley on Wednesday after the Tigers knocked off Colby 79-67.
“Our guys fought so hard,” Garden City Coach Brady Trenkle said afterwards. “We were down big and came all the way back. But I’m getting tired of the other team doubling us up in free throws. Now that are season is over, I’m going to say something because it’s ridiculous.
The numbers don’t lie. Hutchinson (28-3, 15-3) shot 22 of their 30 free throws in the second half. It was the 13th time this season that Garden City’s opponent made more free throws (19) than the Broncbusters attempted (14).
Even with the analytics tilted the Blue Dragons way, Garden City had a golden chance to pull off the second biggest upset of the tournament.
After (Samajae) Jones hit back-to-back treys for Hutchinson, Larry Dennis followed with a dunk and Shakur Juiston hit a fallaway in the lane to give the Blue Dragons a 52-35 advantage with less than 12 minutes to go.
That’s when the light finally came on for Trenkle’s bunch.
Tykei Hallman, who scored a season-high 10 points off the bench, dropped home two, Zach Beard and J.T. Bennett connected on back-to-back 3-pointers, and Garden City (18-14, 9-10) was back to within nine.
Then Antorian Moore added consecutive put backs to cut the Hutchinson lead to seven 54-47 with 9:51 left.
After (Samajae) Jones stretched the Blue Dragons’ lead back to double digits with two free throws and a three-point play, the Broncbusters countered with Aaron Ray, who saved his best performance for the stretch run.
Ray scored 11 of his 16 points in the second half, including a three-point play and a sensational left-handed layup on back-to-back offensive possessions to close the gap to one 65-64 with 3:25 remaining.
Ahmed answered the bell for Hutchinson with an offensive rebound and put back to push the Blue Dragons lead back to three. But the Broncbusters kept coming.
Loy hit a hook shot and split a pair of free throws to tie the game at 67 with 2:09 to play.
On the other end, Awkbar Hoffman hit 1-of-2 from the line before Fleming’s elbow jumper over (Samajae) Jones gave the Broncbusters their first lead since the 16:52 mark of the first half.
The freshman’s basket completed a 34-16 spurt that gave Garden City their third lead of the afternoon with 1:35 to go.
“These guys showed so much heart,” Trenkle added. “The first time we played them, there was no energy. Last time, we showed it in spurts. Today, you could feel it. This team is so talented, and it’s just unfortunate the stuff that they’ve had to deal with this season. But I’m proud that they stuck together.”
That lead never stuck, and the biggest play of the game came on a mental lapse by Garden City moments later.
Juiston was fouled on the other end. He hit the first free throw and missed the second. But nobody boxed out the shooter, and the freshman from Patterson, N.J. outraced Bennett for the ball on the baseline. In one motion, he hit (Samajae) Jones in the right corner. The former Wichita-East star missed a 3-pointer, but Juiston grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
“That one cost us,” Trenkle said. “But let’s be honest: every time Juiston caught the ball today he traveled. And they called it maybe once.”
Juiston made Garden City pay by splashing home both free throws to give Hutch a 71-69 edge with 1:03 to play.
Ray answered once more for the Broncbusters, and his driving layup with 52 seconds tied the game at 71. It’s the last time Garden City scored.
Ahmed hit a backbreaking layup with 35 seconds remaining. Then Loy missed two 3-pointers that would have given the Broncbusters the lead. The first was swatted out of bounds by Juiston in the right corner. The second was a perfect look off a pick-and-pop, but the sophomore’s 25-footer rimmed out.
(Samajae) Jones salted the game away with two free throws, and Hoffman hit a meaningless layup as the Dragons closed the game on a 6-0 run.
“I’m going to tell you that the guys we have coming back are going to help us big time in recruiting,” Trenkle said. “But I’m losing nine sophomores that gave everything they had for this program.”
One of those leaving is Hallman, who played some of his best basketball of the season. He was 5-for-6 from the field in 21 minutes, and his monster, two-handed slam with 4:47 to go cut the Blue Dragons lead to five.
Fleming finished with 16 points but missed 12 shots. Loy added nine points and eight rebounds while Zach Beard chipped in seven.
Hoffman tallied 12 for Hutchinson, who improved to 12-3 lifetime vs. Garden City in regional play. Juiston added nine points and 10 boards and Ahmed recorded his ninth double-double of the season with 10 rebounds.
“We will come back strong next year,” Trenkle said. “That I can guarantee you.”
Hutchinson came out blazing hot early on, hitting 5 of their first 8 shots from the field to put them up 11-7 five minutes in.
In direct contrast, the Broncbusters missed 6 of their first 9, digging themselves a 10-point hole late in the first half.
(Aaron) Ray’s floater with 40 seconds to go until halftime stemmed the tide, and Garden City trailed 36-29 at the intermission.
The only reason the Broncbusters stayed close: turnovers. Hutchinson gave it away 10 times in the first half. In all, Garden City scored 17 points off of 15 Blue Dragon giveaways.