The unbeaten and top-ranked Hutchinson Blue Dragons haven’t been challenged often this season, and in those rare instances they have been able to respond.
Cloud County offered up a challenge on Saturday night, shaving a 12-point deficit in the second half to just one point.
Hutchinson answered the challenge with an 8-3 run, and held on to defeat the Thunderbirds 73-65 in a Jayhawk Conference Western Division matchup in Bryant Gymnasium.
The Blue Dragons, now 21-0 overall and 7-0 in Conference play, are winning their games by an average margin of 29 points. They have won 11 games by 30 points or more and this was just their third win by fewer than 10 points.
“The bottom line is I think we scored enough points to win. I would have felt really really good about our chances of winning scoring 65 points at home. We had to hold them under 65,” Cloud County coach Brett Erkenbrack said, “They are a good team. They hit some big baskets when they need to.”
It was the second straight loss for the T-Birds, following a nine-game winning streak, and they are now 15-6 overall and 4-2 and tied for third place in the Jayhawk West.
Hutchinson bolted to a 13-point lead in the game, and was up 39-29 at halftime.
The Blue Dragons scored the first two points of the second half to lead 41-29.
Trailing 49-38, the T-Birds started to battle back.
A three-point play by Kamika Mason made it 49-41.
Jasmine Patterson scored for Hutchinson, but Aleesha Coulter connected on a three-point shot, and Cloud County was down just 51-44.
Hutchinson would stretch the lead back to 10 points, 55-45.
Four straight points by Jayna Smith and baskets by Jordyn Alexander and Pearlrae Thomas pulled Cloud County within two points, 55-53, with 7:25 to play in the game.
The Blue Dragons got consecutive baskets by Patterson and Brianna Starks to go up 59-53.
Alexander hit from 16 feet, and Thomas made a layup and was fouled. She hit the free throw to get Cloud County within a point, 59-58, with 5:38 on the clock.
Thomas scored 10 of her 12 points in the final 7:25 of the game. She also had six rebounds.
A bucket by Patterson and a free throw by Starks gave Hutchinson a 62-58 lead.
Thomas completed another three-point play to again close the gap to a point, 62-61.
Cloud County had the ball with an opportunity to take the lead, but couldn’t convert.
Patterson scored inside and Jade Herl buried a three, and the Blue Dragons led 67-61.
Thomas missed two free throws, but the T-Birds got a stop, and Thomas scored and was fouled. She missed the free throws, and it was a 67-63 game with 1:12 to play.
Hutchinson hit six straight free throws to hold on for the win.
“I felt going into the game, if we played well we would win. We played well the final 10 minutes, but we certainly didn’t play well the first 30 minutes,” Erkenbrack said.
Alexander, who was eight of nine from the free throw line, led Cloud County with 14 points and seven rebounds.
Coulter matched Thomas with 12 points, and Raneisha Duncan scored 11.
The T-Birds shot just 35 percent (17 of 48) from the field, but made 26 of 33 free throws for 79 percent.
Herl led four Hutchinson players in double figures with 13 points.
Patterson, Aja Sorrells and Jamie Patrick scored 12 each.
The Blue Dragons were 26 of 55 from the floor for 47 percent and 17 of 29 from the line for 59 percent.
Hutchinson trailed just once in the game at 2-0.
Knocking down shots early, the Blue Dragons go out to the 26-13 lead.
“We were horrendous defensively to start the game. We let them take the shots they wanted to take,” Erkenbrack said.
Cloud County hung around by making free throws.
The T-Birds were 16 of 19 from the line in the first half for 84 percent.
“We were doing a pretty good job of getting to the line and a pretty good job of making free throws,” Erkenbrack said.
The T-Birds would get within seven points on two occasions, and trailed by 10 at halftime.
Cloud County closed within a point late, but couldn’t overtake the Blue Dragons.
“There were three or four possessions in their favor, and that is the difference,” Erkenbrack said.
Cloud County plays at Barton County on Wednesday night.