By Mike Pilosof
Wichita, KS-Kendale Hampton just wanted a chance.
During practice on Saturday, Hampton had one those ah-hah moments when hit a contested, fade-away 3-pointer falling into the bench.
"Our jaws just dropped," Head Coach Brady Trenkle said. "We couldn't believe it."
Imagine what Treknle's face looked like when Hampton did it again, only this time it counted; for real!
The sophomore-transfer from Ranger College scored 18 points, none bigger than his cold-blooded 3-pointer from the right wing at the buzzer in overtime, sending Garden City to the Region VI semifinals with a 74-73 victory over Cowley County Sunday afternoon at Hartman Arena. The Broncbusters move on to play Coffeyville on Tuesday night.
"I like being in that position," Hampton said afterwards. "This was a really tough game."
The Broncbusters led for only 19 seconds, and were down by 10 two separate times. But in the end, Hampton's shot, which will go down as one of the biggest in program history, pushed Garden City within two wins of their first national tournament appearance in nine years.
"I told our guys: it doesn't matter how it looks," Trenkle said. "As long as you win, you move on."
It was an uphill climb all night. After tying the game at 2 on Jamir Thomas's steal and layup, Cowley County (21-12, 16-10) countered with eight straight points, capped with Darnell Cowart's 3-pointer from the top of the key that that gave the Tigers a 10-2 advantage with 15:39 left in the first half. Trenkle had seen enough and called a timeout.
"We made some mistakes, but we kept fighting," Trenkle said. "We've been in this situation now twice in the last three games."
The Tigers kept their distance for most of the first half, and Cowart's three-point play gave Cowley County their largest lead, 21-11 with 9:36 to go in the period.
"This was a heck of a game," Trenkle said. "It's a shame that someone had to lose it. I'm just glad we were on the right side."
The Broncbusters appeared to have righted the ship, scoring seven straight points while holding Cowley County scoreless for more than five minutes, cutting the deficit to three when Pierre Johnson split a pair at the line. After Brenden Van Dyke hit 1-of-2 at the stripe to push the Tigers' lead to four, Hampton answered again with a triple from the right corner to make it a one-point game.
"Kendale likes these open-type gyms," Trenkle said. "I mean look what he did at Hutchinson. He hit seven 3's."
The one-point margin was the closest Garden City (21-11, 15-11) got the rest of the first half. The Tigers stormed back with a 13-7 surge, building their edge to seven once Cedric Rembert beat Johnson to the rim. Cowley County was up five at the half.
"The game isn't over at halftime," Trenkle said. "We didn't play great, and we were only down five."
The Broncbusters eventually closed the gap to one with 15:52 to go, but missed on back-to-back chances to take the lead. Instead, Rembert hit a driving layup to put Cowley up 44-41.
"I thought our defense was better in the second half," Trenkle said
Cruickshank's 3 moments later tied the game at 44. But the Euphoria was tamed by the Tigers, who responded with a 15-5 run, polished off by McGee, who buried a 3-pointer from the right wing to give Cowley County a 10-point cushion, 59-49 with 6:19 remaining.
"We needed to get stops," Trenkle said. "I felt like we could score, but it all came down to our defense."
That defense was on full display over the final three minutes of regulation. Open lanes became contests at the rim, and an offense that was stymied for a good portion of the second half, sprung to life. Cruickshank drilled a 3-pointer, Johnson got to the rim for a right-handed layup, and following Jeff Otchere's block on Cowart, Hampton gave Garden City their first lead of the night, slashing from the right wing to the block, laying the ball in softly off the glass with contact. The sophomore hit the free throw, and the Broncbusters were up 67-65 with 46 seconds left.
"Our defense led to offense," Trenkle said. "That's what we preach. And our guys came through down the stretch."
Garden City appeared to have Cowley County stopped dead in their tracks on the ensuing possession. But Johnson was whistled for a foul on Rembert, who sank two free throws to tie the game at 67 with 29 seconds remaining.
With a chance to win the game in regulation, Johnson made a rare mistake, fumbling the ball away on the right baseline, giving the Tigers one last crack with less than a second on the clock. But Cowart's jumper from the top of the key following a 75-foot baseball pass from McGree, ricocheted off the glass, sending the game into overtime.
"Kendale wanted that chance at the end of regulation," Trenkle said. "But that's how it goes."
Hampton eventually got his shot.
Twice in the extra session, the Tigers built a three-point edge. Cowart drilled a triple from the top of the arc on Cowley County's first possession in overtime before McGee hit two free throws to put the Tigers up 72-69 with 3:14 to play.
As he did in the final 10 seconds of their last meeting back in January, Johnson sank two clutch free throws for Garden City to make it a one-point game.
Then a little divine intervention.
Down by one with less than 30 seconds to go, Cowart missed a layup on the left block. The ball popped into the air, landing in Elvis Harvey's lap. But the sophomore appeared to be pushed out of bounds. After a short discussion, the officials ruled it Cowley County ball.
"I thought the officials did a good job, and let both teams play," Trenkle said.
Garden City fouled Cowart, who obliged by throwing up a brick on his first attempt. He followed that up by splashing home the second, and the Tigers had a 73-71 lead with 14 seconds on the clock.
That setup the biggest shot of the season, one that almost didn't happen.
"I was trying to call a timeout," Trenkle explained. "Jamir (Thomas) looked at me and said we got this."
Because of Cowley's full-court press, Garden City inbounded the ball to Thomas, who calmly worked his way across the 10-second line before settling on the right wing. That's when the exchange between the evolving big man and Trenkle happened. It was a split second in the long history of Broncbuster basketball. But Thomas's awareness eventually setup the game winner.
"It goes to show you how far this team has come," Trenkle said. "That would never have happened early in the season."
Thomas's reason for shrugging off the timeout was simple: he wanted to get the ball into Hampton's hands, which he did with four seconds left. The sophomore used a slight stutter step as he veered from the top of the key to the right wing. With less than a second on the clock, Hampton hoisted a 24-footer over Starks that splashed through the net. Game over; comeback complete; history books rewritten.
"He's (Hampton's) a special player," Trenkle said.
Hampton's heroics capped off a furious rally, as the Broncbusters closed the game on a 25-14 surge.
"It's a great feeling, but really this game is like a blur to me now," Trenkle said.
In the coming days, Trenkle and his guys will be able to sit back and watch one of the greatest clutch shots in the history of the Region VI Tournament. But for now, their focus is on the bigger picture.
"We have another war coming up with Coffeyville," Trenkle said.
Hampton logged 43 minutes, scored 18 points and dished out a season-best five assists for Garden City, who advanced to the region semifinals for the first time under Trenkle. Thomas recorded his second straight double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds, while Johnson had 15 points and eight assists. Cruickshank scored 12 of his 15 in the second half.
Cowart scored 19 points and pulled down a team-high 12 rebounds for Cowley, who lost in the Region VI quarterfinals for the third straight year. Rembert also had 19, and tied a season high with three 3's.
Next up: Garden City vs. Coffeyville (Region VI semifinals)-Tuesday, March 6-6:45 p.m. pregame; 7 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app