If there were ever any doubts about the strength of the Jayhawk Conference, Kansas City Kansas Community College's cruise to the 2016 NJCAA Division II women's national basketball championship added yet another jewel to an already glimmering conference crown.
It was the second straight year that the Jayhawk has claimed the Division II national championship and the third consecutive year the conference has had a team in the championship game. Johnson County won the women's national title in 2015 and Highland finished runnerup to Mesa (Ariz.) in the 2014 championship game.
Add Hutchinson's second place finish in this year's Division I men's championship and it was another banner year for Jayhawk basketball.
"If it were not for Highland and Johnson County, we would not have been prepared for the national tournament which says a lot for our conference," said KCKCC Coach Joe McKinstry. "Our region really prepared us for the national tournament. I don't think those other teams in the national were tested like we were tested."
As it turned out, KCKCC's two toughest tests on the way to the national title came in the Region VI tournament. Giving up only one fourth quarter field goal, the Lady Blue Devils came from 11 points back in the final period to defeat No. 4 ranked Highland 54-50 in the semifinals after the two teams has split during the regular season.
Faced with a third meeting with No. 1 ranked and unbeaten Johnson County whom they'd lost to twice including a 30-point humiliation 22 days earlier, the Blue Devils held the Cavaliers to just one free throw in the final five minutes for a 63-56 win in the title game.
The rest of the way was much easier. In a span of four days, the Lady Blue Devils took down the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5 and No. 12 seeded teams by an average of 19 points per game. After a 72-53 win that ended Waubonsee's 18-game winning streak on Wednesday, the Blue Devils defeated No. 5 Owens 78-64 on Thursday, unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Monroe 81-59 Friday and No. 2 Illinois Central 81-59 in the national championship game.
The pivotal game, said McKinstry, came in the quarterfinals against Owens. "A very good team," said McKinstry. "If you didn't know anything about either team, you'd look at Owens and think they would probably run away with the game because of their size and athleticism."
Leading 40-28 at the half, the Blue Devils had their lead cut to five points midway through the final quarter. Just as in the two regional wins, the KCKCC defense took over, holding Owens to just two free throws the final five minutes in the 14-point win. "We got the stops and we showed we could rebound and stay with teams bigger than us," said McKinstry. Despite not having a 6-footer on his lean (only nine healthy players) roster, the Blue Devils were outrebounded by only one (43-42).
The Blue Devils were led by 5-11 sophomore Cheyenne North, who had a spectacular all-around performance with 20 points, 19 rebounds, 7 assists and 5 blocked shots. Unfortunately, she also suffered a painful shoulder injury which nearly kept her out of the semifinals. Despite the injury, she had 13 points and 9 rebounds against Monroe and 14 points and 16 rebounds in the title game to earn the tourney's Most Valuable Player award.
Offensively, all five starters averaged in double figures. Erin Anderson (15.5) and Brooklyn Wagler (15.3) led followed by North (13.3), Sierra Roberts (12.0) and Aricca Daye (44) while Brie Tauai averaged 8.8 off the bench. The Blue Devil floor general at just 5-4, Daye also led in assists with 21. "It just shows how unselfish this team was," said McKinstry.
The biggest difference, said McKinstry, was the intensity. "We were able to stay with bigger teams because of how hard we played, especially as thin as we are" said McKinstry. "The defensive effort and the intensity all week I thought was the difference. We aren't talented enough if we don't stay focused and play hard. If we let up, we can get exposed very quickly. In the end, I felt we just played harder and more aggressively than anyone in the tournament."
THE THRILL OF VICTORY – The broad smiles of sophomores (from left) Aricca Daye, Cheyenne North and Erin Anderson tell it all in the aftermath of KCKCC's 81-59 win over Illinois Central in the finals of the NJCAA Division II national tournament, (KCKCC Photo by Jason Browar)