Kansas City Kansas Community College's streaking Blue Devils refused to surrender first place in the Jayhawk Conference Saturday, repeatedly turning back Labette rallies in an 81-77 thriller that went right to the wire.
Two clutch free throws by Calvin Slaughter with 17 seconds left sealed the win, the Blue Devils' sixth in a row. The win kept KCKCC (5-1) a game ahead of Johnson County (4-2) in the Jayhawk race and set up a key road game for the Blue Devils at dangerous Hesston (13-10) Wednesday night.
The Blue Devils (13-12) never trailed against Labette, bolting to a 14-2 lead in the first six minutes and leading 40-29 at halftime. The lead was still 54-43 with 13 minutes left when the Cardinals made run after run at overtaking the Blue Devils. Eight times the Cardinals got within five points or less, the closest at 78-77 when Slaughter calmly sank two free throws and Jermaine Yarbough added another after the Cardinals had missed a game-tying 3-pointer.
The Blue Devils got huge performances from their two big men, 6-7 Robert Rhodes and the 6-8 Yarbough, who combined for 35 points and 27 rebounds. Rhodes had a double-double with 14 points and a career high 18 rebounds; Yarbough just missed a double-double with a game high 21 points and nine rebounds. Most significant, they combined for 13 of KCKCC's season high 21 offensive rebounds that led to 22 second chance points. They were also responsible for KCKCC's 40-29 halftime lead with a combined 19 points and 13 rebounds including seven offensively.
"Jermaine played great tonight, great presence around the basket and scoring around the rim and Robert was terrific. He's getting comfortable in his shell and is really playing well," said KCKCC Coach Brandon Burgette. Slaughter added 12 points, Ezekiel Lopes 11, Deron McDaniel 10, DeAngelo Bell 7 and Jalen Davis 6 and everyone had a hand in holding off the late Labette charges.
The first came when the Cardinals closed to 56-51 with 12½ minutes left but a Yarbough trey and two McDaniel free throws quelled that comeback. But a half-dozen more would follow in the final seven minutes. Lopes made three free throws and Yarbough tipped in a rebound and added a free throw after Labette had twice pulled to within four points.
Slaughter had a huge offensive rebound, put back and free throw after the Cardinals had closed to 69-66 followed by perhaps the biggest defensive play of the game, a block by Rhodes who corralled the rebound that led to two Lopes free throws for a 74-68 lead with 2:11 left. Field goals by Bell and Rhodes kept the spread at six points before a 3-pointer by Tyler Garrett and layup by Dennis Bryson sandwiched around a turnover cut the lead to 78-77 and set up Slaughter for the game-clinching free throws.
"I wasn't nervous," said Slaughter. "I knew I had to knock them down. I've done it before in high school and college." "Calvin played big minutes after getting in foul trouble early," said Burgette. "He made the big free throws down the stretch and some big plays for us (seven rebounds, four assists)."
Mike Flenorey kept Labette close with 17 of his 19 points in the second half including four 3-pointers. Dennis added 18 off the bench for the Cardinals.
KCKCC had a 48-36 command of the rebounding including the 23 off the offensive boards. "A big difference – and a season high," said Burgette. "Labette was good tonight. They stopped us running, contested shots and slowed us down and we had some bad turnovers (18). But every game the rest of the season is going to just like this. There are no easy teams. We need to get better."
In addition to KCKCC's game at Hesston and Labette's invasion of Highland, Johnson County will be at Fort Scott Wednesday. The Blue Devils then return to close out their home schedule against Fort Scott Saturday (2 and 4 p.m.) and Highland Feb. 19.