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Blue Dragons roar past Chipola, advance to NJCAA quarterfinals


By Brad Hallier

The Hutchinson Community College men’s basketball players and coaches have heard the stories. The legends of how loud the Sports Arena could get during the NJCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship, especially the deeper the Blue Dragons get into the tournament.

Tuesday, the 11th-seeded Blue Dragons experienced how loud the old barn can still get.

With about three minutes remaining, and the Blue Dragons’ 20-point lead whittled down to five, the partisan crowd did its part for the Blue Dragons, helping lift Hutchinson to a 78-71 win over No. 6 seed Chipola, Fla.

Although Blue Dragons coach Tommy DeSalme coached in the NJCAA Tournament in his first season at Hutchinson in 2021-2022, those two games, as well as Monday’s lunchtime win over No. 19 South Carolina-Salkehatchie, didn’t have the noise Tuesday’s prime-time game did.

“What an incredible night in the arena,” DeSalme said. “It was really, really special. That’s what college basketball is all about, and this is the greatest place in juco ball. You have to earn it, and these guys earned the right to play in front of that crowd tonight.”

The Blue Dragons treated the crowd of nearly 4,000 to quite the start. After Chipola scored the game’s first point, Hutchinson scored the next 19. When JP Ricks sank a 3-pointer – one of Hutchinson’s 16 made 3s – with 12 minutes, 36 seconds left in the first half, Hutch had carved up one of the NJCAA’s best defensive teams with 22 points and led by 19.

“We knew if we dribbled too much, they could get some points off steals and get in transition,” said Ricks, who had 14 points and 10 assists to zero turnovers. “We were making the right passes today.”

Hutchinson kept a big lead well into the second half. The Blue Dragons’ offense was solid most of the night, as they shot 44.3% (27 of 61), and made 16 of 34 3-pointers.

But Chipola made a run that put the Blue Dragon fans on edge. They led 57-37 with 12:18 left after a Landon Wagler 3-pointer, part of his career-high 20-point night. The lead was still a comfortable 68-51 with 7:10 remaining after a Tino Simon jump shot, but then, Chipola made its surge.

Josh Williams’ basket inside with 2:41 remaining cut Chipola’s deficit to 71-66. Undaunted, the Blue Dragons answered with a Kernan Bundy 3-pointer that brought an ear-covering roar from the crowd.

Simon saved the best for last, as he sank two free throws with 24 seconds left that pushed the Blue Dragons lead to 76-71, and then he threw down a crowd-approving dunk with 7 seconds left.

“That’s college basketball at its best,” DeSalme said.

Wagler, who continued his strong postseason Tuesday, has had a great-grandfather, uncle and both parents play basketball for the Blue Dragons. His uncle Lucas was a part of the Blue Dragons’ 1994 national championship team. Thus, Wagler had heard the stories through the years of what it was like to play in front of large NJCAA Tournament crowds, and how loud the Sports Arena could get.

“With three minutes left, it really got loud,” Wagler said with a smile. “That definitely gave us a boost.”

The Blue Dragons should have another large, partisan crowd for Wednesday’s 7:15 p.m. quarterfinal against No. 19 seed Connors State, Okla.