HUTCHINSON, Kan. —The first half of the Hutchinson Community College men’s basketball team’s first NJCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Tournament appearance in 16 years was everything it could have wanted.
The second half, not so much.
With a capacity crowd of 7,000 roaring, the fourth-seeded Blue Dragons had an eight-point halftime lead, but saw Jacob Thomas continually bomb away from long, long range to the tune of nine 3-point goals. No. 13-seed Howard scored 62 second-half points and eliminated the Blue Dragons in the second round on Tuesday night with a 92-68 victory.
Making their 17th overall tournament appearance, the Blue Dragons suffered their largest tournament defeat on Tuesday night and are now 12-5 in opening-round games.
“We played a Howard team that got really hot in the second half,” said fourth-year HCC head coach Steve Eck, whose team ended a Region VI championship season at 31-4. (Thomas) was tough to guard. A lot of times we had a hand in his face. We usually do a good job of guarding shooters. We had a hand in his face and we tried to deny him. They ran some screens for him and he got hot. That was the game.”
Thomas finished with 31 points and his nine 3-point goals are the second most ever by a Blue Dragon opponent. Add that to the 26 points and 9 rebounds by forward Cameron Forte, the Hawks had a formidable inside-outside punch the Dragons couldn’t stop.
The Blue Dragons shot 61.5 percent in the first half and closed the first half on a 9-0 run to lead 38-30 at intermission. Sophomore A.J. Spencer led the charge with 18 first-half points.
Howard (30-5) turned up the defensive pressure on the Blue Dragons in the second half, holding Hutchinson to 20.6 percent in the second half, while Howard shot a blistering 62.1 percent (18 of 29) in outscoring the Dragons 62-31 in the final 20 minutes.
“We weren’t making shots in the second half,” said Spencer, who was held to two points in the second half. “They were hitting shots. We turned the ball over couple of times and they hit 3s. We wanted to give our fans more. We never gave up. They hit a lot of tough shots.”
Added sophomore Alex Davis: “In the first half, we had those guys on the edge. We were playing hard. The second half, they got really, really hot. Great shooters make great shots and you have to give (Thomas) a lot of credit. Kadeem (Allen) was playing great defense on him.”
The Blue Dragons shot 38.3 percent overall (23 of 60), only 3 of 16 from 3-point range and 20 of 29 from the foul line. Hutchinson turned the ball over 18 times and Howard parlayed that into a 32-8 advantage in points off turnovers.
Spencer finished with 20 points to lead the Blue Dragons on 9 of 15 shooting. He also had five rebounds and three assists. Allen hit 9 of 12 from the foul line and finished with 17 points.
Davis had 11 points, eight rebounds five assists and four blocked shots. Davis became the first Blue Dragon ever to block 100 shots in a season.
Howard became the first Blue Dragon opponent this season to shoot 50 percent as a team (30 of 60) and scored the most points against the Blue Dragons this season. The Hawks tied an opponent high with 11 3-pointers on 28 attempts. Howard was 21 of 29 from the foul line. The Hawks had 15 turnovers.
DaShaun Wiggins had 14 points and Ladon Carter added 10 for the Hawks.
Rebounding was even at 38-38, but Howard had 16 offensive rebounds.
“The score didn’t indicate how hard we played,” Eck said. “We had the lead at halftime and we knew they would pick up the defensive pressure, but I thought our offense would be able to handle it. They have a good team and can win the tournament. Usually, you play Howard, that’s a semifinal game usually. This was a tough opening opponent.”
The first half featured seven lead changes but early on, it was obvious that Thomas was going to be tough to stop. He hit back-to-back 3s to give Howard a 6-0 lead just 55 seconds into the game. The Forte scored eight-straight points and Thomas added a third 3-pointer, but Howard’s lead was only 17-16 with 11:19 to go in the first half.
HCC went on an 8-2 run, getting back-to-back baskets from sophomore Rozell Nunn and Allen to lead 26-21 with 7:25 to play. A Davis three-point play gave HCC a 29-25 lead with 5:59 to play, but Howard answered with a 5-0 run to take a 30-29 lead with 3:54 to go.
The Dragons then held the Hawks scoreless for the remainder of the half. Spencer scored five-straight points, Davis scored inside and D’Von Campbell had a steal and layup with 9 seconds to play to cap a 9-0 Dragon run and give HCC a 38-30 halftime lead.
Hutchinson had several close-in shots it couldn’t finish in the second half and Howard capitalized. Thomas’ sixth 3-pointer pulled the Hawks within 42-40 with 16:41 to play. Then leading 44-43, HCC went on a 6-0 run and Spencer’s only basket of the second half gave the Dragons a 50-43 lead with 13:54 to play.
Howard finally over-took Hutchinson with a 12-0 run over the next 3 minutes, 12 seconds to lead 55-50 with 11:02 remaining.
Allen then hit 3 of 4 free throws to pull Hutch within 55-53. Thomas and Campbell traded 3-pointers, but Thomas added treys eight and nine to give Howard a 64-56 lead with 7:30 to go.
The Blue Dragons weren’t able to recover from there as Howard closed the game on a 34-14 run over the final 9 minutes of the game.
GAME NOTES – HCC is now 40-22 all-time in the NJCAA Tournament. … The Blue Dragons are now 1-7 vs. teams from Texas in tournament play. … This was the most points allowed in a tournament game since giving up 99 in the seventh-place game against Yuma in 1972. … The single-season and career blocked shots leader, Davis finished his career with 161 rejections. … Davis also became the 22nd Blue Dragon to score 800 career points. He finishes tied with Durrell Peterson for 20th with 810 points … The 31 victories tied for fourth most in program history. … HCC is 27-3 this season when leading at halftime. … HCC is now 1-2 vs. Howard College all time. … Howard’s 11 3-pointers tied Northwest Kansas Tech and Trinidad State for the most 3-pointers allowed by HCC this season.