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No Fooling! Blue Dragon Women Win National Championship in Overtime Thriller


By Brad Hallier


CASPER, Wyo. – The whistle blew with 0.7 seconds left in the second half Monday night at the Ford Wyoming Center.

The Hutchinson Community College women’s basketball team had been given a lifeline.

Down by three points, the mission for freshman guard Hailey Jackson wasn’t exactly simple. Make all three free throws that had been awarded after she had been fouled on a 3-point attempt.

Every kid who shoots free throws in their driveway pretends the championship is on the line. Jackson lived that fantasy. She made all three, which sent the game to overtime, and then the Blue Dragons pulled away for an 88-80 win over Northwest Florida State, sealing the program’s first NJCAA national championship.

A collective gasp could be heard after the Blue Dragons inbounded the ball with 2.7 seconds left, and Jackson attempted a 30-foot shot with Hutchinson trailing 69-66. But Celia Riviere was whistled for a foul, and Jackson headed to the free-throw line.

While Blue Dragon fans nervously watched the free throws, the Blue Dragons on the bench were not concerned.

“Calm, completely calm,” said sophomore forward Mo Duffy, who had fouled out seconds before.

Blue Dragon coach John Ontjes was coaching in his fourth national championship game. Even though he was seeking his first title, Ontjes was likewise cool.

“I was not really nervous for her at all,” Ontjes said. “She spent all the second semester shooting them in the morning, and it was great to see her shoot those with confidence. We were fortunate Haley got fouled, and making those was huge for us. Clutch.”

Jackson came into the game a 69% free-throw shooter. For the Blue Dragons, that was a little better than the team average, but as Ontjes said, she stepped up to the line confidently.

First attempt – good.

Second attempt – good.

Then came the hardest attempt. Make it, and the Blue Dragons had five more minutes to try to win. Miss it, and Northwest Florida State would celebrate its third championship in four years.

“I stepped up and said, ‘God, I hope you got me here,"” Jackson said. “I was good on the first two, but the third one rolling around … my heart dropped.”

On the third attempt, the ball bounced around the rim before gently falling through the basket.

As the final tenths of a second expired, the Blue Dragons rushed to celebrate with Jackson, who had a team-leading 25 points.

And yet, the job wasn’t finished. The game was only tied. Plus, the Blue Dragons would have to play overtime without Duffy and sophomore starting guard Journey Armstead, who had also fouled out.

“I was a little on edge,” Jackson said. “We had two starters out, and we need them, but we also used it as motivation to win it for them.”

The Blue Dragons dominated overtime, outscoring the Raiders 19-11. It was Hutchinson’s second highest-scoring period of the evening.

“It was a tough situation, but we had some bench kids step up,” Ontjes said. “Kaysha (Muggeridge) came up big, but it was a complete team effort. I’m so happy for this team.”

Freshman Kiki Smith completed her strong season with 23 points en route to being named tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Duffy added 13 points and Armstead had 11.

A Hutchinson team that had just come off one of its worst seasons in years – the Blue Dragons still won 23 games – showed it still is a contender. And, after the championship losses in 2012, 2014 and 2015, Ontjes could celebrate his first national championship.

“We never had any turmoil this season,” Ontjes said. ‘We played in some tough games in (Region 6) that got us ready for the national tournament. This group was amazing. The only disappointing thing to me is we can’t have the ability to get better as a group again.”

No, but this team has a championship trophy and a banner will soon be raised in the Sports Arena, alongside the men’s basketball national championships in 1988, 1994 and 2017.

And of course, a memorable trio of free throws that will be replayed on highlight films forever.