By Mike Pilosof
Garden City, KS-Brady Trenkle likes for his guys to endure what he calls "character wins."
Saturday afternoon epitomized that exact concept, even if the fourth-year coach aged about 50 years in the process.
"We just haven't played well at home all year," Trenkle said. "I can't put my finger on it. Maybe we should sleep in the gym."
All seemed well with 5:16 remaining in the second half and Garden City (11-4, 7-4) leading 66-53 following Theo Holloway's third 3-pointer of the day. But the Panthers had no plans of going down quietly.
Rodney Ray, a reserve swingman, who played all of nine minutes, had the Broncbusters scrambling over the final 1:38. The New York native converted back-to-back layups before hitting a driving floater that cut the Garden City lead to four, 74-70 with 35 seconds to play. After Pierre Johnson split a pair of free throws to extend the advantage to five, Austin Downing got free, using a high pick to maneuver himself free for an open foul-line jumper that made it a three-point contest.
"Austin Downing killed us last year when they beat us," Trenkle said. "We knew exactly what he was capable of."
But no one could have predicted that Ray, not Downing, would nearly spoil Garden City's first home game of the New Year.
With a chance to ice the game at the line, Thomas misfired on a 1-and-1 attempt. Ray grabbed the rebound for Neosho County (5-9, 3-8) and raced the other way. He flipped the ball to Downing, who drove from the wing to the block before missing a tough-angled bank shot. But Ray was right there for the tip in, slicing the Garden City lead to 75-74 with 2.9 seconds.
"We made a lot of mistakes down the stretch," Trenkle said.
None was more costly than when Garden City tried to throw the ball in after Downing's bucket. Johnson was called for an offensive foul, giving the Panthers a chance to win the game.
"We were trying to get the ball to Pierre, because we wanted him shooting the free throws," Trenkle said. "It didn't work out too well."
On the Panthers' ensuing inbounds play, Downing floated a pass to Fenner on the right wing. The freshman got Octavious Meadows to bite on a fake; then leaned into a 25-foot 3-pointer.
"Fenner is one of the best 3-point shooters in the history of Arkansas High School basketball," Trenkle said.
So it was no surprise when the ball rattled around the cylinder for what seemed like an eternity before harmlessly popping out, giving the Broncbusters an anxiety-filled, one-point victory.
"I thought, defensively, we played very well on that last sequence," Trenkle said. "We did a good job of taking away the drive and forcing them into a long shot."
As well as Garden City played in stretches of the first half, they couldn't shake the Panthers. After leading for a majority of the period, the Broncbusters went cold as Neosho County held them scoreless the final 1:41. Meantime Jariah Taylor converted a second-chance layup and Lual Dung hit two free throws to give the road team a 31-30 lead at the break.
But unlike the Pratt game, Garden City took charge to begin the second half, surging back in front on the heels of a 6-0 run. Then, midway through the frame, Holloway drilled a trey from the wing and Thomas put home a layup that stretched the Bronbusters' lead to double digits. Moments later, Thad Middleton sent a jolt throughout the gym with a thunderous driving dunk, and Garden City was up 56-44 with 9:34 to go.
"We see that from Thad every day in practice," Trenkle said with a big smile. "Thad is a really good player, who is actually on track to graduate after just one year. I really want to coach him for two years."
Middleton was fantastic and efficient to boot. He scored six points in 15 minutes and was 3-of-5 from the field.
"He's such an unselfish player," Trenkle said. "He's really getting his rhythm now."
Johnson flirted with another triple double with 11 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for Garden City, who won for just the second time on their home floor in conference play. Kendale Hampton tallied 14 points in 35 minutes and was 4-of-8 from downtown.
Downing notched his second 20-point game of the season for Neosho County, scoring 21 on 7-of-17 from the field. Ray equaled a season high with 13 points.
Next up: Garden City at Colby-Wednesday, Jan. 10-8 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app