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Still perfect! Blue Dragon women edge Butler to win Region 6 championship


By Brad Hallier

Throughout his illustrious tenure as Hutchinson Community College women’s basketball coach, John Ontjes has coached some outstanding teams.

Some, like this year’s team, won a conference title.

Some, like this year’s team, won the Region 6 championship.

Some, like this year’s team, won both.

Some, like this year’s team, will head to the NJCAA Division 1 Women’s Basketball Championship undefeated.

After the Blue Dragons edged Butler 54-52 on Saturday at the Sports Arena to win the program’s ninth Region 6 championship, Ontjes smiled when asked about this year’s team.

Last year, the Blue Dragons didn’t have the kind of season they’ve been accustomed to in Ontjes’ 17 seasons. The 23 wins were the fewest in Ontjes’ tenure, and the eight losses tied for the most. The Region 6 quarterfinal exit was the earliest of Ontjes’ tenure.

A program in decline? Not even close. 

“Quite honestly, you don’t ever take this for granted,” Ontjes said. “And you’re not supposed to have favorite players, but this might be my favorite team. They have chemistry and togetherness, and to be able to coach them … it’s been great all season long.”

Ontjes said this year’s team hasn’t wilted when adversity hits. Unranked in the preseason NJCAA polls, when the Blue Dragons ascended to No. 1, they almost yawned.

“It’s easy for groups to be comfortable, but this group has been focused week in and week out,” Ontjes said. “Once we reached No. 1, they still felt like they had something to prove.”

The Blue Dragons proved that toughness time after time.

They held off Butler 71-65 in a tight second regular-season meeting. They overcame a sloppy offensive night Friday against Barton and won 49-39. And Saturday, the Blue Dragons were down in the third quarter when starting point guard Journey Armstead was hurt after trying to take an offensive charge.

She missed the end of the quarter and the start of the fourth quarter before returning, and the Blue Dragons did well not to let Butler build onto its lead.

“We were telling the girls, ‘We got this, do it for (Armstead),’” said freshman guard Kiki Smith, who scored 13 points. “Staying together is what we did all game.”

The Blue Dragons struggled in the third quarter, scoring nine points. Butler’s lead grew to four points, and the concern became, where would points come from.

Hailey Jackson came to the rescue. The freshman forward scored 12 of her game-high 15 points in the fourth quarter.

“At the beginning of the game, it was like the mile run we do in preseason,” Jackson said. “Four laps, four quarters, and my laps were very slow in the first three quarters. My teammates needed me, and I finished.”

But when the game was on the line, and the Blue Dragons needed one bucket to break a 52-52 game, well, few players are better than Smith. 

Ontjes called timeout after Butler did the same with 23.1 seconds left. The play drawn up was simple – get the ball to Smith and get out of the way.

“Big players rise up to big occasions, and Kiki has done that for us all year,” Ontjes said. “We were going to put the ball in her hands, and if we could get downhill, she could either finish a play or make a play for somebody else.”

Smith got the ball on the left side of the front court and dribbled to the middle of the court with 10 seconds left. She drove to the basket, got fouled and made a shot with 5.6 seconds left.

“My teammates were looking at me and saying ‘Key, you got this,’” Smith said about the timeout discussion. “It was my time to go get a basket. I just had to relax and make a play.”

The Blue Dragons needed one more stop, however. Armstead and Jackson forced a missed shot from Maycee James, and Mo Duffy grabbed the final rebound for Hutchinson.

Armstead collapsed in joy on the court and Duffy sprinted to the bench to celebrate.

“What a game,” Ontjes said. “Incredible basketball game. It wasn’t the prettiest thing, but we have a lot of respect for Butler. They’re an incredible team. But our kids showed toughness, grinded it out, and found a way to win.”

The Blue Dragons will likely be the top seed at the NJCAA Championships in Casper, Wyo., which starts on March 26.