By Mike Pilosof
Hutchinson, KS-The last time Garden City won a game at the Sports Arena, Patrick Nee was coaching at Independence, the New York Jets were playing in the AFC Championship Game, and Lebron James was getting set to play in the first of his eight straight NBA finals.
Talk about a long stretch. But with the way this topsy-turvy season has unfolded, Wednesday night was well worth the wait.
Jamir Thomas scored 22 points, Russhard Cruickshank hit the go-ahead free throws in the final 12 seconds, and the Broncbusters knocked off No. 9 Hutchinson 70-69 claiming their first win at the Sports Arena since Feb. 6, 2010.
"I'm so proud of these guys," Broncbuster Coach Patrick Nee said. "They wanted this one so bad. They have worked their tails off, and it showed tonight."
Playing inspired basketball following a blowout home loss, Garden City (8-10, 3-6) deployed a suffocating defense, one that limited one of the premier offensive teams in the region to just 40 percent shooting. At the same time, the Broncbusters found rhythm on their end of the floor, turning an early six-point deficit into a 10-point lead once Tony Hopkins followed up Jakobi Pearson's missed 3 with a ferocious right-handed jam. It capped off a 24-8 run that had Garden City up 31-21 with 3:23 remaining in the first half. They led by seven at the intermission.
"I know the season hasn't unfolded the way we wanted," Nee said. "But we feel like we can do some things if we can get rolling. We're hoping a win like this can get us going."
One thing Nee knew was inevitable was the Blue Dragons' second-half avalanche, although it wasn't as overpowering as in year's past. But that didn't stop Hutchinson (15-3, 6-3) from shooting 26 free throws over the final 20 minutes of the game. In fact, the Broncbusters survived despite committing their seventh team foul with 14:20 left to play.
"I just kept telling them to fight through all of that," Nee said. "It's something that we expected."
As expected, the Blue Dragons made their push. D.J. Mitchell drained a 3-pointer and hit two free throws to tie the game at 43. Then, after Garden City built the lead back to six following an impressive spin and finish by Thomas, Malique Jacobs answered back with a couple of freebies before Mitchell connected on another long ball, fueling an 8-0 run that gave the Blue Dragons their first lead since the early stages of the first half.
"We could have very easily folded when they came back to take the lead," Nee added. "But give them credit, they didn't."
Moments after they lost the lead, Cruickshank stuck a cold-blooded 3 over Chris Giles that put the Broncbusters up by one. Pearson added a floater, and Thomas hit an off-balance layup going to his right that gave Garden City a 65-63 edge with 2:23 on the cock.
"Jamir was good tonight," Nee said. "There are still some things we are trying to get him to do. I am really hard on Jamir, and he takes it. But he responded tonight."
Giles though didn't make anything easy on the road team. His third triple of the night put the Blue Dragons on top by one. In the final minute, Saquan Singleton split a pair of free throws, and Hutchinson led 69-68 with 41 seconds remaining.
"It didn't matter what happened, we weren't going to be denied," Nee said.
That set the stage for Cruickshank, who, with the shot clock winding down, took Jacobs off the dribble before drawing a blocking foul with 12 seconds to go in regulation. With the noisemakers going off, the sophomore calmly sank two free throws to put Garden City up 70-69. After a timeout, the Blue Dragons had a chance to win it, but Jacobs misfired on a teardrop in the paint in the final seconds as the Broncbusters escaped with a one-point victory.
Hopkins turned in another solid performance for Garden City with 13 points and seven rebounds. Pearson and Cruickshank each tallied 10.
Mitchell paced the Blue Dragons with 17 points in 34 minutes. Giles added 16 , and Rheaquone Taylor had 11 points and nine boards.
Next up: Garden City at NW Tech-Saturday, Jan. 19-5 p.m. on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app