By Mike Pilosof
Garden City, KS-Garden City found themselves in a very familiar situation on Saturday afternoon at home: up big in the first half with the chance to stomp on their opponents' throat.
And like they've seen over the past couple of games, the lead completely dissipated. Only this time, the Broncbusters had an answer, and they may have snapped out of their midseason funk in the process.
Jamir Thomas recorded his seventh double-double of the year with 19 points and a season-high 15 rebounds, Kendale Hampton drilled three more 3's and tallied 19, and the Broncbusters used a harassing, half-court defense to put away Cloud County 73-65 at Conestoga Arena. The win snapped a three-game losing streak and moved Garden City within a game of fourth place in the Jayhawk Conference with five to play.
"You can tell that Cloud has gotten a whole lot better," Garden City Coach Brady Trenkle said. "Those guys played hard. But we defended at a pretty high level in this game."
That defense was on full display in the opening minutes, forcing Cloud County (6-18, 4-17) to miss their first seven shots while Garden City (16-9, 12-9) built a 10-6 advantage. But the Broncbuster offense, so crisp and free flowing three nights earlier in Hutchinson, could not buy a basket in the first 11 minutes of the game, missing on 14 of their first 16 from the field. That enabled the Thunderbirds to flip the script, and when Saleem Holden hit a jumper from the right elbow, Cloud County had an 18-13 lead with 9:30 to play in the half.
"We had great looks," Trenkle said. "We just weren't knocking them down."
Those shots finally began to fall once Thomas and Pierre Johnson hit free throws. Kendale Hampton followed with a game-tying basket before Thomas completed a three-point play, sparking an 8-0 surge that pushed the Broncbusters in front by three. Moments later, Jeff Otchere converted an and-1 layup, Octavius Meadows banked in a 3-pointer from the right wing, and Johnson glided down the left side of the lane for a left-handed layup that stretched the cushion to nine. Thomas added two more freebies; then Johnson dropped a beautiful dime to a cutting Hampton, who beat two defenders to the rim for two points, and Garden City had their largest lead of the game 35-21 at the 3:04 mark. It was all part of a 22-3 run that had former Broncbuster assistant and current Thunderbirds Head Coach Jordan Altman searching for answers.
"We made a good push in the first half and found a rhythm," Trenkle said. "But I don't care what the records are, every team in this league is capable of winning."
Cloud County proved they were more than game, and Solomon Finley's step-back triple from the right corner capped a 7-0 run to close the half, narrowing the deficit to seven at the break. Garden City went scoreless the final 3:04 of the opening period.
"I didn't look at this game like it was Independence all over again," Trenkle explained. "That Independence game was like something that was unbelievable. I had coaches texting me that watched the game afterwards and were texting me and apologizing. But it definitely had my guys down, and it took us a while to snap out of it."
As Independence did two weeks earlier when they crawled back from 18 down, the Thunderbirds clawed their way back, scoring nine straight points early in the second half to grab a 41-39 with 14:52 to play. But unlike the game with the Pirates, the Broncbusters threw a counterpunch, and Hampton's 3 from the left wing fueled a 21-8 run that he promptly capped with another trey to put Garden City up 60-49 with 9:25 remaining.
"I'll say this right now without any hesitation that the last two years have been the toughest schedule that Garden City has ever played," Trenkle said. "I mean when it's all said and done, we will have played 52 conference games in two years. That's insane."
Down by double digits again, Cloud County worked their way back into the contest, and Breyon Jackson's layup pulled them to within five, 60-55 with 7:25 on the clock. Then, with less than five minutes to go, Jackson drew a costly fifth foul on Otchere, finishing a tough, two-handed layup at the cylinder. His ensuing free throw cut the Broncbuster lead to three.
"Jeff plays so hard, and we are trying to get him to understand that when he goes straight up, they will never call a foul on him," Trenkle said. "But when he drapes his arms over that's when they're calling him for fouls. He played really well, but I need him on the floor in closing minutes of games."
With the game still hanging there once Jackson hit two more freebies to make it 68-65 with 3:29 left, Thomas put the clamps down.
With the shot clock ticking down, Johnson knocked down a jumper from the elbow to push the lead to five. He then added three free throws in the final 15 seconds to close it out, as Garden City swept the season series from the Thunderbirds for the first time since 2016.
Meadows sparked the Broncbusters off the bench with 11 points and five rebounds in 22 minutes, while Otchere added 10 points, nine rebounds and five blocks. He was 4-of-6 shooting before fouling out with 4:11 left.
Jackson tallied his second double-double of the season with 16 points and 10 rebounds for Cloud County, who lost their seventh straight game. Former Oregon walk-on JaVary Christmas had 12, as did Ramion Burt.
Next up: Garden City at Pratt-Wednesday, Feb. 14-8 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasenws.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app