In two games between the Garden City Community College and Cowley College men’s basketball teams this season, a combined six points separated the victors from the losers.
On Nov. 18 at Cowley, the Tigers won 85-81 in overtime, and two months later at the Conestoga Arena the Busters held on to a 66-64 win. Two points separate the teams' combined total points 149-147.
Now, the pair — the No. 4 seed Tigers (20-11) and No. 5 seed Busters (21-11) — will meet for the third time at 3 p.m. Sunday in the Region VI quarterfinals at Hartman Arena in Park City, and each team has its sights set on winning the season series and advancing to Tuesday’s semifinal round. The Busters have not reached the semifinals since 2009, when they won the region and earned an NJCAA tournament berth and finished sixth.
The Busters’ loss at Cowley never should have happened, however. Usually in losses, coaches and players can point to a plethora of reasons that resulted in the setback — turnovers, shooting poorly, rebounding, poor defense.
There was one reason — and nearly the only reason — the Busters lost to the Tigers in November: Garden City went 8 of 26 from the free-throw line, far and away the team’s worst shooting performance from the stripe this season.
They shot it worse from the free-throw line (30.8 percent) than they did from 3-point range in that game (42.1) and for the season (35.9).
“Everything came down to the free-throw line,” GCCC head coach Brady Trenkle said at the time. “You’re not going to win games going 8 of 26.”
And to make matters worse, the Busters were 3 of 17 from the line in the second half and overtime. Add in that they had a season-worst 20 turnovers, and the overtime game never should have gotten there — the Busters had just six turnovers against the Tigers at home on Jan. 24.
But those two games are history, and only the result of Sunday’s game matters now, with both teams entering with a ton of confidence.
The Massey Ratings has the Busters as a slight one-point favorite, with a 53 percent chance to win.
The Tigers downed Neosho County, 71-62, in the region first round Thursday, while the Busters held off Allen County, 91-85. Cowley — averaging 78.4 points per game — has won three of its previous four games, with a 76-64 loss at Coffeyville the only setback.
The Busters, meanwhile, have won four in a row, scoring 90-plus points twice. They are averaging 75.1 points per game. But equalizing for pace of play, the two teams’ offenses and defenses’ are nearly equal, with the Busters owning a slight edge on offense (1.05 points per possession to 1.04), while Cowley’s defense has been slightly better, allowing 0.99 points per possession to Garden’s 1.01.
GCCC guard Russhard Cruickshank believes the Buster defense has hit another gear recently, however.
“If we guard, we can beat anybody,” he said after Thursday’s win over Allen.
The guy the Busters will have to key on is sophomore forward Darnell Cowart, who is leading the Tigers with 15.8 points per game, but who scored better than that in both games against Garden. He scored a season-high 28 points against the Busters in the home win — on 9-of-16 shooting — and then 17 in the road loss — on 5 of 9 from the field.
He hit multiple 3-pointers in each game. The key for the Busters may be keeping both posts Jeff Otchere and Jamir Thomas out of foul trouble — both fouled out of each game against Cowley this season.
Elvis Harvey likely will also have a big role in defending Cowart.
The Busters, meanwhile, likely will need another hot-shooting effort from Cruickshank — who was 5 of 10 from deep against Allen — or Kendale Hampton, who is 4 of 8 against Cowley.
Contact Levi Burnfin at email@example.com