By Mike Pilosof
Garden City, KS-Postgame is time for reflection, and all Patrick Nee could do Wednesday night was think about the day he landed Tahlik Chavez.
"When I first saw his highlight film, I was blown away," he said. "I knew I wanted him right away. He thrives in big moments."
And Garden City needed him desperately in their conference opener.
Chavez netted a season-high 26 points, including the go-ahead 3-pointer with 38 seconds left, Kaleb Favors tallied 11 of his 18 in the second half, and the Broncbusters erased an eight-point deficit in the final four minutes to beat Cloud County 88-85 at Conestoga Arena.
"We didn't come out with the greatest energy in the second half," Nee said. "I thought Cloud really played hard. They outplayed us in the last 15 minutes of the game, so we are very fortunate to win this one."
Garden City won the game despite missing a season-high 15 free throws (24-of-39). They also turned it over 19 times, with 12 of those coming in the first 20 minutes.
"We scrapped and clawed to win this game," Nee said. "But this is Jayhawk Conference basketball. This is how hard it is to get a win in this league."
The Thunderbirds made the Broncbusters work for everything. Trailing by 10 at the break, former Garden City assistant, Jordan Altman, now in his third year as the head man in Concordia, put together a post-heavy offense, one that the home team had no answer for. Iyen Enaruna, whose brother Tristan plays at Kansas, and his frontcourt mate Denzel Ndongosi, combined for 27 points and 22 rebounds. In fact, it was Ndongosi's two layups that put Cloud County up 70-64-completing a 16-point turnaround with 7:00 remaining.
"We told our guys to not let them get baseline," Nee explained. "They got it a couple of times, but for the most part, I felt like we had good rotations. But I was disappointed in how many times a rebound bounced around and we weren't diving on the floor."
Following a forced 3-pointer by Darius Roden that bounced off the right iron, the Thunderbirds went for the kill. Chad Vincent-Simon fired a crosscourt pass in the corner to DJ Sims, who shook off a 1-of-12 start from the field to drain his only 3 of the game, stretching Cloud County's lead to 79-72 with 3:47 to play. They pushed it to as many as eight moments later.
"We know how to play from behind, that's one thing about this team," Nee said. "That's why we played the non-conference schedule that we did because we wanted to test ourselves."
With their offense, reeling, Favors took over. Like a blur, the transfer from Kilgore scored six straight points, all on transition layups. Then, with less than two minutes remaining, Traylynn Spencer grabbed Roden's missed layup and stuck it back home to tie it. Just like that, in a stretch of 90 seconds, Garden City went from down eight to even.
"Our guys were calm in that situation," Nee said. "But I thought there were too many times when we took a shot and missed it that guys had their heads down. We can't be like that."
Cloud County surged back on top, thanks to a sensational drive by Jay Lewis, who beat Chavez from the left wing to the right block for a layup, giving the Thunderbirds an 83-81 edge with 1:24 left.
It was their final lead of the night.
Roden split a pair of free throws, then stole a pass from Ty Duin on Cloud County's next possession. Following a timeout, Nee put the ball in Chavez's hands and the freshman delivered. He created just a sliver of separation between he and Lewis before lofting a majestic rainbow that splashed through the net from 25 feet straight on. It was his season-high sixth triple of the night, and it gave the Broncbusters a two-point advantage.
"He (Chavez) has a lot of confidence," Nee said. "That shot tells you all you need to know."
The Thunderbirds came right back to tie the game on Ndongosi's layup from the left block. But Chavez answered on the other end, drawing a foul on Lewis before draining the go-ahead free throws with 14 seconds.
After Altman called a timeout, Lewis had a chance to put Cloud County back in front. But his 3 from the left wing clanged off the right rim. Chavez grabbed the rebound, hit 1-of-2 free throws; then stole the ball at half court in the final seconds, giving the Broncbusters a thrilling three-point win. It was their fourth straight victory over the Thunderbirds.
"There were so many little things where we left points out there," Nee said. "The turnovers and missed free throws killed us. But it's a gutty win; a win that we really need here at home."
The Broncbusters went for the knockout early in this one.
After the Thunderbirds scored the first basket of the game, Garden City responded with 11 straight points. And when Cloud County fought back to take a one-point lead later in the half, it was Chavez hitting four straight long balls, fueling a 16-7 run that had the Broncbusters up 44-34 at the break.
Chavez finished 8-of-18 from the floor and 6-of11 from downtown for Garden City. Roden chipped in 14 points in 27 minutes off the bench, and Spencer had 12 points and nine rebounds despite constant foul trouble.
Lewis paced the Thunderbirds with 22 points, three steals and three assists. Enaruna had 16 on 6-of-9, and Dyelan Reed hit two backbreaking 3's in the second half to finish with 10.
Next up: Garden City at Allen-Saturday, Nov. 30-4 p.m. tip on 99.9 FM; westernkansasnews.com/kwkr and KWKR mobile app