By Mike Pilosof
Liberal, KS-As Patrick Nee was being serenaded with boos and heckled by the very crowd that used to cheer for him, the former Seward County assistant was watching his team short circuit again, an all-too-common theme during a season which has seen plenty of ups and downs.
On Wednesday, Garden City again put themselves in position to knock off a ranked opponent. But as they did Saturday in Great Bend, the Broncbusters couldn't close the deal.
Reggie Miller scored 18 points and knocked down nine free throws, Marco Morency chipped in 15 points and a season-high 12 rebounds off the bench, and the 17th-ranked Saints stormed back from 12 down to beat the Broncbusters 75-74 at the Greenhouse.
"I know people are tired of me saying it, but I really feel like we are right there," Nee said. "We've proven that we can play with anyone."
Garden City has definitely proven it can be a scary team come March, just ask Steve Eck and Hutchinson. But they've also shown vulnerability, something that wasn't seen during their run to the Region VI semifinals last season.
"We keep moving in the right direction," Nee said. "We have to learn how to play different ways."
Garden City looked lethargic to start the game, committing three early turnovers and falling down 6-0. But then R.J. Pair got them going, hitting back-to-back 3s to spearhead an 11-0 run that forced Saints' coach Jason Sautter to call a timeout.
The stoppage in play did little to cool off the Broncbusters, who raced out to a 25-13 advantage once Traylyn Spencer hit 1-of-2 free throws.
"We were very smooth in what we were running in the first half," Nee explained. "We weren't as crisp after halftime."
Once Spencer hit that freebie, Garden City went cold. Seward County responded by scoring 10 straight points, and the Broncbusters once double-digit lead was down to two, 25-23 with 2:46 remaining in the half.
"They made a couple of runs at us in the first half," Nee said. "We did a good job of matching their intensity."
Leading by one late in the first period, Russhard Cruickshank, who has been stuck in a recent shooting slump, canned two shots from the charity stripe before completing a three-point play to put Garden City up five. They took a four-point edge into the locker room.
In the second half, the Broncbusters once again took control. Spencer hit a hook shot, and Jaleel Simmons splashed in an 18-foot jumper from the foul-line circle to polish off a 15-5 run that had Garden City in front 55-48 with less than 10 minutes to go.
"We have to learn to finish games, period," Nee said. "We haven't done a good job of that this year."
The Saints had no plans of going quietly. Miller's layup, where he beat two Broncbuster defenders off the bounce, finished off a 7-0 run that gave the Saints their first lead since the opening minutes of the game. It was one of eight lead changes in the second half.
With the game teetering, Hegel Augustin gave Seward County the lead for good with a free throw that made it 69-68. Miller followed with two freebies, and Montrevion Flowers finished off a dazzling three-point play that pushed their lead to six with 44 seconds left.
"It's frustrating because I don't have the answers on to why we cant finish games," Nee said.
Garden City had one last chance after Simmons stole the inbounds pass. But Pearson missed two critical free throws, rendering his off-balance 3 in the final seconds meaningless.
The Saints won the game despite turning the ball over 15 times and shooting just 40 percent. They improved to 10-1 at home this year.
Jamir Thomas continued his strong play with 18 points and five rebounds for Garden City, who lost for the seventh time in their last nine games. Cruickshank scored 16, and Spencer added 15.
Next up: Garden City vs. Hutchinson-Saturday, Feb. 9-4 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app