Just when things looked the bleakest for Kansas City Kansas Community College Wednesday, the Lady Blue Devils' defense stepped front and center.
Trailing the Jayhawk Conference's highest scoring team by 14 points late in the first quarter, the Blue Devils limited No. 8 ranked Highland to three field goals in the second quarter and five in the third to rally for a 69-56 win.
"Our best defensive effort; the win we've needed all year long," said KCKCC Coach Joe McKinstry. "Highland is really good, fast and athletic and they really stretch you out. But our girls did a great job of helping each other out, playing defense for more than one or two steps and focusing on the whole possession."
Indeed, the 56 points are a season low for the Lady Scotties. In fact, it was only the third time Highland (20-3) has been held under 70 points this season (they scored 62 against Labette, 63 against JCCC). Averaging 91.4 points, the Scotties put 120 points on the board against Hesston last Saturday and dealt KCKCC a 93-73 setback just 2½ weeks ago.
The win was the third in a row for the Blue Devils, who improved to 24-5 overall and 5-4 in the Jayhawk heading into the conference final at No. 7 ranked Johnson County Saturday at 2 p.m. KCKCC will then host either Hesston or Fort Scott in a first round Region VI playoff game Friday, March 28, at 6 p.m.
Catalysts in the win were 6-1 freshman Kamryn Estell and a quartet of guards who combined for 30 rebounds against the much taller Scotties. Although none stand taller than 5-foot-7, Aliyah Myers had nine rebounds, Tiaira Earnest eight, Brodi Byrd seven and Diamond Williams six. "Our guards were fantastic," said McKinstry. In addition, Myers had 14 points and four assists and Byrd 11 points.
Estell also had eight rebounds and a team high 16 points but her effort in cutting off the baseline and Highland drives down the lane was paramount to the defense. "Kamryn is the best help defender I've ever had," said McKinstry. "She's big and strong and does a great job of recognizing what is needed and closes off (lanes) for the other team."
Limited to just two field goals (2-of-12) and guilty of five turnovers, the Blue Devils trailed 19-5 late in the first quarter and were still down 23-13 with four minutes left in the half before Myers and Estell pulled KCKCC to 25-24. Myers and Estell each had two field goals and Jada Mayberry one with Myers finishing off the 11-2 run with a 3-pointer.
The lead changed hands three times and the game was tied five times in the third quarter when KCKCC went ahead to stay. Adoreya Williams broke a 41-41 tie with a layup and Mercer Roberts drained a long 3-pointer for a 46-41 three-quarter lead. "That 3-pointer was huge," said McKinstry.
Highland made two big fourth quarter challenges, closing to 48-46 but Diamond Williams made two free throws and Byrd converted a 3-point play for a 53-46 edge. The Scotties closed again to 54-49 with five minutes to go but Myers knocked down a trey and Estell scored off a Myers' rebound for a 59-49 lead and the Blue Devils expanded the margin from the free throw line.
Statistically, free throws were the difference. KCKCC made 24-of-35 including 20-of-25 the second half against a Highland team that leads the conference in fouls by a wide margin. Guilty of 26 fouls, just three over their season average, the Scotties were 7-of-17 from the foul line.
"Even early in the game I thought our defense was good," said McKinstry. "Our focus all day was to attack, attach with the dribble. It took a while but once we figured it out, we got to the rim or it opened opportunities or we got fouled. It was a great sustained effort, one we haven't been able to sustain. So I was very pleased the girls found out what it feels like. It's not easy but it's worth it."
The loss dropped Highland into a tie for second place with Johnson County in the Jayhawk (5-3) two games back of champion Labette (8-1).
KCKCC freshman Kamryn Estell has been double teamed all season and Wednesday was no exception as she's sandwiched between two Highland defenders. Estell had 16 points, eight rebounds in KCKCC's come-from-behind 69-56 win. (KCKCC Photo by Alan Hoskins)