GREAT BEND — A opportunity to knock off the 17th-ranked team in the country and open the season with a second consecutive win just slipped away from the Cloud County Thunderbirds.
Trailing Arizona Western College by five points with 36 seconds to play, the T-Birds closed to within a point and had the ball with just under 10 seconds remaining.
Cloud County got the ball to Jordyn Alexander, but Arizona Western forced a turnover and Chantal Thomas made one of two free throws with one second left to secure a 69-67 victory for the Matadors in the second round of the Highland Hotel/Pizza Hut Classic Saturday afternoon.
Host Barton County downed McCook Community College 86-71 in the other game played Saturday.
Cloud County, which led by as many as seven points in the second half, went down 67-62 when Arizona Western’s Stephanie Schmid hit a three-point shot.
Agnese Aramina, who was 1 of 12 from three-point range after making five of six in the win over McCook the day before, missed a three, but Jayna Smith got the rebound and was fouled.
Smith made both free throws, and Cloud County trailed 67-64 with :21 remaining.
Cloud County fouled Schmid immediately, and she went one of two from the line to put the Matadors on top 68-64.
A three by Raneisha Duncan seven seconds later got the T-Birds within a point, 68-67.
Cloud County then forced a turnover, and had the ball with a chance to win.
“We called timeout and changed our press a little bit. We did a pretty good job on the inbounds, and they fumbled the ball out of bounds,” Erkenbrack said, “It looked like we were in pretty good position. Jayna (Smith) made a pretty good pass to Jordyn (Alexander). I don’t know what happened. Whatever it was the ball ended up out of bounds.”
Cloud County was forced to foul Thomas and she went one of two from the line to make the final margin two points.
With the T-Birds struggling to knock down shots, Arizona Western led much of the first half.
“It was an odd game from the standpoint that Arizona Western is a tough matchup for us in that they are really big and they want to play pretty slow,” Erkenbrack said.
The Matadors were up 23-16 when Cloud County went on an 11-1 run to take a 27-24 lead when Linda Pagrode made two free throws with 2:18 left in the first half.
Arizona Western got a three by Schmid, a free throw by Jameela McCarthy and a layup by Jazzmyn Oliver to reclaim the lead at 30-27.
A basket by Aramina left Cloud County trailing just 30-29 at halftime despite hitting just 8 of 33 field goal attempts for 24 percent.
“I didn’t think we could play any worse than we did in the first half and we were down one,” Erkenbrack said.
Neither team would lead by more than two points over the first six minutes of the second half.
The game was tied at 38-38 when Cloud County got three straight points by Smith and a three-point basket by Raneisha Duncan to grab a 44-38 advantage.
Smith had a team high 17 points, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals in the game.
Cloud County took its biggest lead of the game, 48-41, on a jumper by Smith with 9:05 to play.
“A couple of different times in the second half we looked like we were in control of it,” Erkenbrack said, “Each time we looked like we were going to get a lock on the game we would turn it over, foul or both. We just never put the thing away and it cost us.”
Arizona Western battled back to take a 55-53 lead.
A bucket by Courtney Fisher tied it at 55-55.
Two free throws by Schmid and two more by Tania Uluheua gave the Matadors a 59-55 cushion.
Cloud County hung around, and tied it at 62-62 when Pagrode made two free throws with 1:25 remaining.
Uluheua scored and Schmid drilled a three to give Arizona Western the 67-62 lead.
Cloud County made a final push, but couldn’t overtake the Matadors.
Alexander finished with 16 points and 13 rebounds for the T-Birds.
Pagrode added nine points.
Cloud County was 19 of 63 from the floor for 30 percent, made just 4 of 25 three-point attempts for 16 percent and connected on 25 of 32 free throws for 78 percent.
Schmid led the way for Arizona Western with 25 points.
Strane, Uluheua and Oliver scored nine points each.
Cloud County hosts the Doane College junior varsity at 6:00 Thursday night.