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Blue Dragons overcome sluggish start to salt away Salkehatchie


By Brad Hallier

Even after playing 19 games at the Hutchinson Sports Arena this season, the feeling was different Monday for the Hutchinson Community College men’s basketball team.

The arena was the same, but the backdrop was not. This wasn’t a mid-week practice in an empty gym. This wasn’t a regular-season game in early November.

This was the first round of the NJCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship.

The 11th-seeded Blue Dragons needed more than half the first half to settle in, but once they did, they were able to seize control, and they pulled away for a 96-82 win over No. 22 South Carolina-Salkehatchie.

“It was definitely a little nerve-racking,” sophomore guard Kernan Bundy said. “Last year, we didn’t make it, so it was an incredible opportunity for me and the guys, and I can’t wait to keep going with it.”

The Blue Dragons struggled to start the game. When Salkehatchie’s Jaiden Cancela scored with 10 minutes, 26 seconds left in the first half, the partisan Blue Dragon crowd was quiet as the Salk led 26-15.

It wasn’t going to take a caffeine rush to get the crowd going. It was going to take the Blue Dragons playing better.

Salkehatchie’s Grayson Kirk seemed to have all the answers early on, and the talented guard finished with a game-high 32 points.

“I thought we were really, not necessarily nervous, but I thought we were a little bit tight starting off the game,” said Hutchinson coach Tommy DeSalme “They played well the first eight, nine minutes. They made a lot of tough shots. Once we settled down and got past the nine-hour media timeouts, it settled us down a little bit. I thought our defensive intensity got better.”

As such, the fans responded to the improved play, and the Blue Dragons kept rewarding their fans.

“It definitely felt different,” sophomore forward Kam Thomas said. “The intensity was there out of the gate. The crowd was there. Once we settled down and started to make some shots, we found our groove and took off from there.”

JP Ricks started the Blue Dragons surge with a 3-pointer. Russell Branch followed with another 3. Landon Wagler and Branch sank four consecutive free throws, and when Wagler scored on a layup five seconds after Branch’s free throws, the Blue Dragons led 27-26.

“We had to settle down,” Thomas said. “It’s March. We knew guys were gonna make shots, and once we settled down defensively, we started kicking it in.”

By halftime, Hutchinson led 50-43.

That lead quickly swelled in the second half. Bundy was at the heart of the action, and when he buried a 3-pointer with 12:21 left in the game, Hutchinson led 77-53.

Bundy finished with a team-best 20 points to go with five rebounds and three steals.

“I just had to settle,” Bundy said. “I’m not a guy who goes out and scores 20 every game. I’m just a guy who tries to have an impact on the game, but if I have 20 I have 20. I didn’t know that until I saw the score at the end.”

The Blue Dragons advanced to the second round for the second time in DeSalme’s three seasons. They will play again at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday against Chipola, Fla., the team that eliminated DeSalme’s first Blue Dragons team. 

“That’s why we come here. We come here to play here and play in March,” Bundy said. “That’s our whole goal and has been this whole season.”