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Connors State lassos Blue Dragons, ending Hutchinson’s NJCAA run


By Brad Hallier

Kernan Bundy hiked his jersey over his face, his arms over his head.

The inevitable was fast approaching, and the pain was evident for the Hutchinson Community College sophomore and his teammates. 

The final seconds of the Blue Dragons’ season soon elapsed, as 19th-seeded Connors State rolled to another win, beating 11th-seeded Hutchinson 91-69 on Wednesday at the Sports Arena in the NJCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Championship quarterfinals.

The players walked off the floor after the loss but with cheers of appreciation from another large, partisan crowd. While the season ended, it marked the Blue Dragons’ best season since the 2016-2017 national championship season. Hutchinson’s 29 wins ties for the most since that season, and the quarterfinal appearance was the Blue Dragons’ deepest NJCAA run since then.

Those accomplishments will likely mean more in the coming days, weeks, months and years. But in the aftermath, the loss was painful.

“It’s a bittersweet moment,” said sophomore Kam Thomas, who finished his strong season with 12 points, four rebounds and three blocked shots. “Not a lot of people expected us to get this far, and I wouldn’t want any other team to do this with.”

Hutchinson simply couldn’t get its offense jump-started after a solid start. An early alley-oop layup from Bundy and a Landon Wagler 3-pointer gave the Blue Dragons a 14-6 lead.

But Hutchinson struggled after shooting. The Blue Dragons finished making 36.8% (25 of 68) and made just 4 of 26 from 3-point range.

“Tough night,” said Hutchinson coach Tommy DeSalme, who wrapped up his third season with a second NJCAA Tournament appearance at Hutch. “We were sluggish. It was our third game in three days, but that’s part of the national tournament. Sometimes, you just got to tip your cap. There’s a lot of wins on that sideline with coach (Bill) Muse.”

Hutchinson’s defense also struggled to keep the Cowboys away from the basket. Connors State shot just three 3-pointers, making two, and the Cowboys ended up shooting 51.6% (32 of 62). 

Connors State led 41-35 at halftime, and the lead soon swelled to double digits.

Hutchinson kept surging, but the Cowboys often had an immediate answer. Three times in the second half, the Blue Dragons were within six points, and on each occasion, Connors State scored.

Bradyn Hubbard led the way with 29 points for the Cowboys.

“Sometimes, you need a little luck to go your way,” DeSalme said. ‘We just couldn’t get anything to fall. We looked like a pretty tired team.”

JP Ricks had a good night for the Blue Dragons, scoring 22 points and dishing out four assists with no turnovers.

Although he was at Hutchinson just one year after transferring from Tallahassee, Ricks said he was appreciative of his experience as a Blue Dragon.

“It was a great crowd all three days,” Ricks said. “This has been a great group of guys, and we just came up short.”

But it was a great season for the Blue Dragons. Last season, they finished 20-12, their fewest wins and most losses in a non-Covid season since 2008-2009. And despite a string of injuries, using different lineups and rarely having a full allotment of players, the Blue Dragons had one of the best seasons in school history.

“We had a quality group of sophomores,” DeSalme said. “This team went through the gauntlet, and we made a lot of changes on the go and changed our philosophy on the fly, so that’s a credit to the guys.”