By Mike Pilosof
Garden City, KS-For 18 minutes on Wednesday, the Broncbusters looked like an unstoppable machine, hitting contested shots, and playing intense defense, forcing Independence to miss 13 of their first 16 shots.
But something changed with less than two minutes remaining in the first half. And in the end, Brady Trenkle could only watch as his team let a sure win, slowly slip away.
DeAnthony McCallum hit 13-of-16 free throws and finished with a game-high 20 points as the Pirates stormed back from a 20-point deficit to stun Garden City 76-72 at Conestoga Arena.
"I had a few guys, who I won't name, that didn't show up tonight," Trenkle said. "And they've been big for us all year long."
The loss dropped the Broncbusters into a three-way tie with Colby and Cowley for fourth place in the Jayhawk Conference, while Independence moved to within a game of Garden City (15-7, 11-7) in the standings.
"I don't know why we struggle at home," Trenkle said. "But you could see the momentum shifting at the end of the first half."
If the first 18 minutes were any indication, the Broncbusters appeared poised for their most lopsided victory of the season. Garden City scored 10 of the first 12 points in the game; then stretched their lead to 11 following Russhard Cruickshank's 3-pointer from the top of the key that made it 18-7 with 11:33 to play in the first half. After Independence (13-8, 9-9) sliced it to seven, Garden City answered with a 20-4 run, capped off by Elvis Harvey's 3-pointer from the right corner that bumped the lead to 45-25 with 1:45 to go until halftime.
"Even when we got up by 20, we weren't doing anything special," Trenkle said. "We were just hitting shots."
Garden City was dialed in from distance, hitting 8-of-16 3s over the first 18 minutes. But that's when the foundation began to crumble, something that no one saw coming.
McCollum hit six straight free throws for Independence, then finished off the half by shaking off Tanner Smith and burying a 3-pointer from the left wing to cut the Broncbuster lead to 45-34 at the break.
"Tony (Turner) did a really good job tonight," Trenkle said. "This one is squarely on us. I told our guys in the locker room, that each one of us, including myself, needs to look at themselves in the mirror."
The 15-minute intermission did little to stop the Pirates momentum. Sean Pollack's hook shoot followed by back-to-back buckets by McCollum finished off a 15-0 run that pulled the Pirates to within five, 45-40 with 17:15 left in the game. After two straight three-point plays by Jamir Thomas stretched the Broncbusters' cushion back to 10, Tryeece Berry countered with a 3-pointer, Romani Hanson turned a Garden City turnover into a layup, and Jaelin Grant splashed home a triple from the left wing that tied the game at 53. Berry then hit 1-of-2 at the line to push the Pirates in front before Morris Talbert got right to the rim for an uncontested layup. McCollum then polished off another 15-0 surge with two free throws, turning a 20-point deficit into a five-point advantage with 10:29 remaining.
"There was absolutely no flow to this game," Trenkle said. "There were whistles at every stop. But in the end, our guys were worried about things that they shouldn't have been worried about."
Independence built their lead to as many as seven following Hanson's layup with 6:20 to go before Trenkle's team fought back. Garden City answered with six straight points including Pierre Johnson's 12-foot floater that gave the Broncbusters their final advantage, 68-67 with less than three minutes on the clock.
"Maybe we need to start practicing somewhere else," Trenkle said. "I mean, we can't figure this thing out at home. It's very frustrating."
The Pirates grabbed the lead for good when Grant grabbed Hanson's missed hook shot and stuck it back home with 2:20 to play.
"I'm not really worried about any other teams right now in this conference," Trenkle said. "We have to get our minds right. We have to be able to win four straight games, and right now we keeping winning two and losing one. But to win a region title, you have to win four in a row, and that's our goal."
Trailing by three with less than 30 seconds left, Garden City needed a stop. Turner put the ball in Berry's hands, and the freshman delivered, slithering around Cruickshank, who was playing with four fouls, before getting right to the basket for a layup that increased the Pirates lead to five.
"I told Russhard to foul, and he looked back and said he had four," Trenkle said. "I told him that you have to foul in that situation."
Hampton gave the Broncbusters a glimmer of hope when he nailed a 28-foot 3 pointer from the left hash mark. But Berry put the finishing touches on the comeback moments later, connecting on two charity shots that gave Independence their second straight win at Conestoga Arena.
"These guys need to fight and claw," Trenkle said. "This is what life is all about. What do you do when things get hard?"
Cruickshank had a breakout game in the losing effort, hitting 5-of-8 3-pointers, finishing with 19 points on 6-of-11 shooting. Hampton added 18 and Thomas had 13.
Hansen poured in a season-high 17 points for the Pirates, who won their fourth straight game and improved to 8-3 on the road.
Next up: Garden City vs. Dodge City-Saturday, Feb. 3-4 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app