Thanks to the greatest clutch 3-point shooting in history, Kansas City Kansas Community College is one win away from a return to the NJCAA Women's Division II national tournament.
In a script right out of Hollywood, Caitlyn Stewart forced overtime and Niji Collier hit the game winner with 1.8 seconds left in a dramatic 79-76 overtime win over Johnson County Saturday in arguably the best game ever played in the KCKCC Field House – so good that Blue Devil students stormed the court for the first time ever.
Billed as a battle of national heavyweights, it was all of that and a whole lot more – 16 ties and 11 lead changes in a classic shootout that saw both teams shoot better from the 3-point than the game. JCCC made 11-of-25 treys for 44 percent; the Blue Devils (27-4) drilled a whopping 17-of-38 for 44.7 percent on a day both teams shot 39 percent from the field.
Historically, it was KCKCC's first ever 3-game season sweep of the Cavaliers and the 100th career win for fourth year Blue Devil Coach Joe McKinstry. His bid for No. 101 will come Tuesday against No. 6 ranked Highland (24-4) in the Region VI championship game to be played at 5 p.m. in Hartman Arena in Lake City just north of Wichita. At stake, a berth in the national tournament in Harrison, Ark., March 19-23.
The drama of the shootout left McKinstry in something of a daze. "There were so many big plays and big shots I can't remember them all," said McKinstry. "It was crazy."
Let's start in overtime. Two free throws and a field goal by Lexy Watts and Lenaejha Evans' 3-pointer out of the corner gave KCKCC a 72-69 lead with 2:29 left only to have JCCC go back in front 73-72 on a pair of short range goals. Collier quickly got the lead back with her fifth 3-pointer and Stewart made it 76-73 with one of two free throws with 38 seconds left only to have JCCC's KK Jackson-Morris tie it with the most improbable of shots, a 3-pointer that hit the front of the rim, bounced high off the bankboard and drop through with 17 seconds to go.
More often than not, game-winning plans go astray. Not this time. Stewart got the ball to Collier at the right edge of the key and Nija's 3-pointer was dead center with 1.8 seconds left. "Coach told me to take a three; I wanted to take it," said Collier.
"I thought it was the best chance to get an open look," confirmed McKinstry. "We had been struggling to get open and not doing well inside. And Caitlyn did a great job of running Nija's guard off to get her a good look." Stewart liked the call. "I've got confidence in Nija shooting," she said.
It would never have gotten into overtime had it not been for Stewart, the 5-5 sophomore playmaker from Wichita Maize not known for her shooting. Just 17 of 56 3-pointers for 32 percent in 27 games, Stewart was a perfect 3-for-3 from 3 in the fourth quarter.
KCKCC trailed 53-46 early in the fourth quarter before Stewart quick-started a 9-0 run with her first trey and Collier put KCKCC in front 55-53 with a three and three free throws.
The Cavaliers twice opened 3-point leads in the final four minutes only to have Stewart and Collier regain ties each time with clutch treys. But it was JCCC with a 65-61 lead with 22 seconds left as the Cavaliers went to the foul line four straight times, converting one of two free throws each time to leave just enough room for KCKCC to catch up.
After making one free throw, a second by KCKCC's Lillie Moore was knocked out of bounds by JCCC and Stewart made the most of it with a step-back game-tying 3-pointer with 10.4 seconds left and JCCC could not get off a shot. "I'm a sophomore and knew I had to step up and lead. It was exciting," said Stewart, who finished with 10 points – all in the fourth quarter and overtime – and led in assists with five.
Equally important was her defensive effort against JCCC sharpshooter Jacionna Stowers, who led the Cavaliers in scoring but needed 18 shots for 18 points including 3-of-8 3-pointers. "That's the sixth or seventh straight game Caitlyn has guarded the other team's best offensive guard; she busted her tail off and Lexy Watts did a good job when she relieved her," said McKinstry.
Collier led the way with her 20th double of the season – 25 points and 11 rebounds, both game highs. Her help came from many sources. Evans had 12 points, four rebounds and four assists and her three first half treys helped KCKCC lead 37-36 at halftime. Caroline Hoppock and Watts added eight points each, Moore six points and seven rebounds, Kisi Young five points, five rebounds and four assists and Camryn Swanson five points.
The 17 three-pointers tied the KCKCC record for second most ever and were very much a part of the game plan. "We talked a lot in our preparations and knew we had to make shots from the outside," said McKinstry. "Their defenders were clogging up the middle and we had to do a couple of things different. We had to step up and knock down shots and Nija was 6 of 12, Lenaejha 4 of 8 and Caitlyn 3 of 5." Hoppick added two treys and Swanson and Moore one each to rally KCKCC from an early 25-17 deficit.
In addition to Stowers' 18 points, Jackson-Morris added five threes and 15 points and Brandi Thibeaux 12 points for JCCC, which finished 27-5. "They've got a top notch program and a great coach, quite honestly the kind of program we aspire to be," said McKinstry. "Of my 100 wins, these sophomores have accounted for 48 of them and I'm so thankful to have them. I hope everyone feels ownership of the 100 wins. They've put us in the position we're in."