For the first time in 22 years, Kansas City Kansas Community College's Lady Blue Devils wear the crown of Jayhawk Conference champion.
A 64-60 win over nationally ranked Johnson County Saturday wrapped up the Lady Blue Devils first NCAA Division II conference championship and KCKCC's fourth in history. The Blue Devils shared the 1995 NJCAA Division I conference championship with eventual national champion Independence and then won back-to-back titles in 1996 and 1997.
"I'm super super happy for our girls," said KCKCC Coach Joe McKinstry. "It's been a long journey. This is what we talked about when we recruited this sophomore class. I'm ecstatic they're able to reap the rewards for their hard work over their two years."
To win the championship in the toughest DI conference in the nation, the No. 4 Blue Devils (8-2) had to sweep the No. 9 Cavaliers for the first time since 1997, a sweep that dropped JCCC (6-4) into fourth place behind No. 7 Highland and No. 10 Labette, both 7-3.
The only drawback, the Blue Devils (26-4) will most likely have to do it again. Assuming a JCCC win over Fort Scott Wednesday, the Cavaliers (26-4) and KCKCC will square off in a Region VI semifinal this coming Saturday at 4 p.m. Hesston will play at Labette Wednesday with that winner to play at Highland Saturday. The Region VI title game will be played Tuesday, March 2, at Hartman Arena in Lake City.
Deadlocked 31-31 in a first half that had six ties and four lead changes, the Blue Devils never trailed in the second half but it took huge 3-pointers by Brodi Boyd and Caroline Hoppock and game-clinching free throws from Niji Collier and Lexi Watts to hold off a late JCCC rally.
KCKCC built its biggest lead at 50-40 with nine minutes left only to have the Cavaliers close to 50-45. Hoppock blunted that rally with a trey but the Cavaliers closed again to 55-51 and set up the biggest play of the game. Bryd, the 5-6 freshman from Truman, took a page right out of Patrick Mahomes' repertoire – a lefthandeded 3-point that just beat the shot clock with 4:27 left.
"Without a doubt the biggest play of the game," said McKinstry. "We were in trouble and she bailed us out. Sometimes in a long season you're in position to need some luck. We acknowledge that and we welcome it." Not only was it Byrd's first ever left-handed three, she had never attempted one. "Never," said Byrd. "There wasn't any other option. I had to rush."
Collier kept the KCKCC lead at 60-54 on an assist from Byrd with 2:41 left and it stayed that way until JCCC's Jacionna Stowers tossed a huge scare into the biggest crowd of the season, knocking down two contested 3-pointers in the final 33 seconds.
Free throws had not been good to the Blue Devils all evening – just 12 of their first 21. But Collier swished a pair after Stowers' first trey had cut the lead to 60-57. Stowers' second three made it 62-60 but Watts kept it a two possession game with two monster free throws with 24 seconds to go.
"Obviously it was not the prettiest win but I was happy how hard we competed and then stepped up and made free throws when it really mattered after their No. 1 made two super difficult shots that were really contested," said McKinstry.
Collier, who played only six minutes the first half because of two early fouls, led KCKCC with 15 points and six rebounds while Kisi Young with 11 points and six rebounds and Lillie Moore 10 points and a game high eight rebounds kept the Blue Devils in contention the first three quarters.
Byrd, who played 34 minutes, had eight points including a pair of treys, five rebounds, five assists and no turnovers; Lenaejha Evans, eight points and four rebounds;Watts eight points including 5 of 6 free throws; and Caitlin Stewart three rebounds, two assists and two steals while directing the offense.
But it was the KCKCC defense that was decisive. The Cavaliers managed just 3-of-15 field goals in being outscored 15-9 in the pivotal third quarter and 7-of-21 the final quarter. "They had 17 more shots and 16 offensive rebounds but otherwise I was pleased the way our defense stepped up and limited them to one shot when we really needed to," said McKinstry.
THEY'RE NO. 1 – Happy members of KCKCC's Jayhawk champion team include (front row, from left) redshirt Diamond Williams, Caroline Hoppock, Caitlin Stewart and Lexi Watts; (second row) head coach Joe McKinstry, Kisi Young, Niji Collier, Lillie Moore, Lizzie Stark, Carson Chandler, Lenaejha Evans, Camryn Swanson, Brodi Byrd and assistant Tameka O'Neal. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)