HUTCHINSON, Kan. — The Howard College men’s basketball team had never seen a crowd like they did Tuesday at the National Junior College Athletic Association championship tournament as they were tasked with facing the hometown team — Hutchinson Community College (31-2) — which was in the national tourney for the first time since 1997.
But, the Hawks have some big time players who made some big time baskets down the stretch to take a commanding lead they wouldn’t relinquish and removed the Blue Dragons from the bracket with a 92-69 win.
It was a tight game for 30 minutes.
Jacob Thomas — who accounted for 31 points, including nine three-pointers — began the affair with a pair of three-point buckets to put Howard up 6-0.
“I knew that for us to win, Jacob had to have a good game,” HC Head Coach Mark Adams said. “He had a big night and he was due for one. Every time we got down, he hit a big shot for us.”
Hutchinson then responded with a three of their own to kick off a 10-0 run in the opening minutes which would give them the lead until Thomas struck again. The lead changed again several times in the middle of the first half and then, the momentum swung in the Blue Dragons’ favor for a while.
“If anything, the atmosphere helped Hutchinson in the beginning,” Adams said of the lively, capacity crowd. “Then, things calmed down in the second half. It was a fun atmosphere. I really respect our guys’ focus. I don’t think it bothered them much.”
The Hawks were down by eight at the intermission and it seemed like Hutchinson was finding their offensive groove while the Hawks were cooling off.
A more focused Howard College team returned from the locker room after the half.
“The big adjustment we made was our defensive alignment,” Adams explained. “We changed our matchups and we executed offensively better than we did in the first half.”
Thomas — along with freshman Cameron Forte (26 points, nine rebounds) — led an offensive onslaught along with teammates DaShaun Wiggins (14 points), Ladon Carter (10 points) and Rico Richardson (six points).
The Hawks scored 62 points in the second half, including 42 points in the final 12 minutes to quiet the crowd of more than 7,000 and crush the hopes of Hutchinson winning a national title in front of a home audience.
“(Wiggins) gave a strong performance off the bench,” Adams said. “We needed that. He made some real big plays for us. (Richardson) also had a good game. He didn’t score many points, but he had nine assists, seven rebounds and some big steals for us. He played with a lot of heart.”
The pivotal moment came when Thomas hit three 3-pointers in a two-minute span to extend Howard’s lead to nine. Wiggins nailed a pair of free-throws then a three-pointer of his own as the Hawks began to amass points at too rapid a rate for the Blue Dragons to respond to.
Howard capped the game with a 34-14 run in the final minutes.
The Hawks advance to the quarterfinal round where they will face Vincennes College, an Indiana program which defeated Texas’ Lee College on Monday, 84-80.
“I was hoping we’d get Lee,” Adams added. “I guess I should have expected this though — nothing comes easy for this team. Vincennes is a basketball team that was predicted to be one of the best and some coaches say they are the best. They are very well-coached and very disciplined. I think they are more inside-oriented than outside. They are big in the post and they rebound well. That has caused problems for us. We will have to play extremely well.”
Tip-off against Vincennes is set for Thursday at 2 p.m.