If there’s one sure thing in sports, it’s to expect the unexpected.
No better truth could be said about Wednesday night’s Class 6A sub-state semifinal basketball game at The Garden.
The Campus Colts-Garden City Buffaloes re-match from 2017 proved just as nerve-wracking as the four-point Garden win of a year ago, and the ending result, a precarious 44-42 Buffaloes’ victory, looked much like it did nearly a year ago to the day.
But the road to the win was anything but predictable for the Buffs, who improved their season record to 13-8 and will now head to Derby for a 7 p.m. Saturday game against the Panthers, who prevailed over Junction City, 76-34, on Wednesday night. The winner of that game heads to the state tournament, which begins March 8 in Wichita at Koch Arena.
As was the case a year ago, the Buffs had the better record incoming, but Campus’ season schedule was probably on the tougher side, so there was no way GCHS coach Jacy Holloway was looking past the Colts.
“We had some bad matchups defensively, and I’ve been worried about that for the last couple of days,” Holloway said after the game. “We had to make some changes, and be a little more pressure on the defensive side to get them sped up some.”
Down the stretch, neither team was especially adept at the free-throw line, the Colts and Buffs each missing five freebies in the fourth quarter.
Single free throws by Jarrod Springston and Jayden Crook with 0:23 and 0:5.9 seconds remaining proved to be the final difference in the outcome, as Campus’ Tanner Leslie drained a deep 3-pointer from the right baseline with 0:08 remaining to make it a 43-42 Buffs’ lead.
After Crook made the second of two charities, the Colts were able to get the ball just past halfcourt, but a cross-court pass went awry, and the visitors couldn’t get a final shot off before the buzzer.
If there were any big surprises in the game, it came in the return of Garden City’s 6-3 senior sub Derrick Sexton, who had moved to North Carolina with his mother in early January, after having his best and, at the time, last game in a GCHS uniform against Liberal on Jan. 9 (10 points, 11 rebounds).
But a family situation arose, and Sexton returned to Garden City on Sunday night, practiced Monday and Tuesday, with school officials certifying his eligibility, and he was back with the Buffs for the big postseason game.
And it was Sexton who provided the Buffs with a big lift in the third quarter when they needed it the most.
Down one at halftime, 18-17, the Buffs saw the Colts come out red-hot in the third, getting outscored 12-4 to fall behind 30-21 with 2:59 remaining in the period.
Enter Sexton into the lineup for the second time in the game.
From the 2:48 mark to the end of the quarter, all Sexton did was score six points and grab a pair of key rebounds, hitting a bank shot at 2:48, a baby hook at 1:48 and an 18-foot jumper with 0:55 remaining.
“He gave us a big lift absolutely,” Holloway said of Sexton’s return. “The other kids have known his situation. They’ve kept in touch with him. They welcomed him back. And he understood his role when he came into the game.”
Sexton, too, admitted to a case of nerves early on. But then he settled in and helped the Buffs close the quarter on 11-4 run to trim the Campus lead to 34-32 heading to the final eight minutes.
“I just try to bring energy to the court,” Sexton said. “Play defense, get some rebounds. I was a little scared, but the guys are all good friends and they helped me a lot. This feels great to get a win and we hope to get another win Saturday at Derby.”
Pretty heady stuff when one considers Sexton had played five games while living in Goldsboro, N.C., and to come back and practice twice and get back into the Buffs’ system says a lot about the Buffs’ squad.
“Team chemistry with the group is really good,” Sexton said. “I love my teammates, and it just feels really good to be back here.”
There were times during the game when things didn’t go well for the Buffs. They turned the ball over 14 times, including nine in the first half.
They were just 8 of 16 from the free-throw line (Campus was only 6 of 13), and they connected on 44 percent of their field goals (16 of 36).
Crook led the Buffs’ scoring with 11 points. Junior Kyler Lamb came off the bench with eight critical points, including a pair of 3-point daggers at the start of the fourth quarter that helped put the Buffs in front for good at 38-35 with 5:50 remaining.
“I think we had a lot of guys do some things that they usually don’t, and that picked up the slack for others,” Holloway said.
Of the eight players who saw court time, seven of them scored and seven of them had multiple rebounds. The Buffs had a slender 28-24 rebounding advantage, with Demarcus Elliott leading the way with five.
Cade Howard, Campus’ 6-6 junior post, had a game-high 17 points and shared rebounding highs with Sterling Gaston-Chapman, with seven boards.
Both teams struggled out of the gate in the opening quarter — the Buffs being able to handle the fullcourt press employed by the Colts, and Campus unable to make some point-blank shots in the paint.
After an early lead at the outset, the Buffs saw the Colts go on a 7-0 run for a 9-5 lead, but with Jarell Coleman, Springston and Crook getting buckets in the final 2:25, the Buffs got the score knotted at 11 by the end of the quarter.
Neither team got much offense going in the second period as the three buckets by the Buffs came at the 7:28 mark (Lamb fastbreak layup), Crook (layup, 4:53) and Elliott (layup, 2:20).
Campus’ last points of the half came on a floater by Leslie with 3:45 on the clock.