LUBBOCK — Two down, one to go. The Hawks started off strong in the semifinal round of the NJCAA Region V tournament Friday at the Rip Griffin Center against conference foe Odessa College — who Howard dispatched twice already this season — but the Wranglers battled back to give the Hawks a scare before a strong second half showing by the seven-foot Goran Huskic, who keyed the Hawks' 71-56 win.
Huskic led all scorers with 18 points, which included a 14 point run in the second half to give Howard the lead for good. Three other Hawks scored in double digits. Jacob Thomas put up 14, Rico Richardon chipped in 11 and Phillip Miller added 10. Cameron Forte and Ladon Carter — who combined for 60 points in the tourney opener against Temple on Thursday were held to just 11 points total.
With Howard up by as much as 16 points in the first half, Odessa rallied back with sharp-shooting from the three-point range, which knotted the score at 31 with under four minutes remaining in the first stanza.
A three-point basket by Thomas gave the lead back to the Hawks. When the halftime buzzer sounded, the Hawks held a narrow, four-point advantage.
The Wranglers kept it interesting for the opening minutes of the second half, but Howard's offense begin to click, going on a 20-4 run with Huskic leading the charge.
It was the highest scoring game of the year for Huskic. A native of Obrenovac, Serbia, Huskic said it took some time to make the transition from European to American basketball.
“The style in Europe is softer, they don't play hard like in America,” Huskic said. “I needed almost a whole season to adjust to that type of game. It's more aggressive here, it's more physical, it's more tough with rebounding. Last year, back in Europe, I'd have 12 rebounds, 13 rebounds — just because I'm big. Here I can't catch the ball so easy. I have to work for every rebound. All the skills I showed tonight, I already had last year. But I needed a whole season to adjust to the physical game.”
The Hawks had built their lead up to 19 with seven minutes left on the clock.
Standing in Howard's way of making a national championship run in Hutchinson, Kan., is another WJCAC conference rival, New Mexico Junior College. The Hawks split the season with the Thunderbirds, losing their first meeting 76-60, but winning the second 89-74.
HC Head Coach Mark Adams said prior to the tournament that he had no doubts about his squad's ability to put points of the board, but had some concerns with rebounding and defensive play. Last night, however, he liked what he saw on both sides of the ball.
“We worked on rebounding and I think it has made a significant difference,” Adams said. “Our man-to-man defense is still not what I'd hoped it would be, but we score the ball and we do that pretty well, so that's kind of been what we hang our hat on and hopefully we continue to do that.
The Hawks (28-4), met the T-Birds at the Rip Griffin Center on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. Results will be in Monday's edition of the Herald.