CONCORDIA, Kansas — "Horseshoes and hand grenades."
The common phrase was one that came to mind for Cloud County Community College men's basketball coach, Chad Eshbaugh, after his team nearly pulled the early season upset of No. 6 ranked Hutchinson Community College on Wednesday.
The visiting Blue Dragons (6-0 overall, 2-0 KJCCC) held on for an 80-74 victory inside a rowdy Arley Bryant Gymnasium, handing the T-Birds (5-1 overall, 1-1 KJCCC) their first loss of the season.
There were plenty of positives to take away from Wednesday night, but Eshbaugh and his new look 2016-17 T-Birds weren't about to hang their hats on moral victories.
"I don't believe in moral victories, especially here in our gym," Eshbaugh said. "That was a game where I felt we played well enough to win. The guys gave great effort. I have no complaints there or with their winning spirit. It came down to making shots and we didn't shoot it well enough. That's what happens when you play higher-level basketball. It becomes a make-miss game."
Cloud County shot 36.5 percent from the floor Wednesday, well below its season average of 47.8 percent, while Hutchinson finished the game at a 47.5 percent clip, including a 51.7 percent mark in the first half.
The Blue Dragons jumped out to a 16-7 lead to put the pressure on Cloud early. The T-Birds responded with a 17-7 run, capped off with back-to-back 3-pointers from sophomore guard Deon Lyle following the first-half media timeout. Lyle was a perfect 4-for-4 from deep in the first half (7-of-10 for the game) and finished with a team-high 21 points.
Lyle drilled another 3-pointer with 6:20 remaining in the first half to give the T-Birds their biggest lead of the game at 31-25. But Hutchinson answered with a 16-8 run of its own to take a 41-39 lead into the halftime locker rooms.
Cloud County held its last lead of the game with 16:29 remaining on a 3-pointer cashed in by sophomore Andrew Ballock. Foul trouble and cold shooting plagued the T-Birds from there as Hutchinson was in the bonus by the 13-minute mark of the second half.
The Blue Dragons entered Wednesday's game shooting just 61.6 percent from the free-throw line, but they hit the big ones when it counted as they were 12-for-16 (75 percent) in the second half and outshot Cloud County at the stripe, 32-11.
"To their credit, they made free throws. But it's a 15-foot unguarded shot, so we don't have any control over that," Eshbaugh said. "I hate to leave the game up to chance and we put them at the line too much."
Hutchinson opened up an eight-point lead with two minutes remaining. Cloud County refused to go away quietly. Lyle made a trey with 27 seconds left, and then another with 13 seconds remaining to cut the deficit to four points, but that's the closest the T-Birds would come as the Blue Dragons held on for an 80-74 final.
Joining Lyle in double-figures for Cloud County was sophomore point guard Aamahne Santos with 17 points. He added a team-high seven rebounds and four assists, as well. Fellow sophomore guard Lavar Harewood added nine points off the bench.
Hutchinson was led by sophomore forward Shakur Juiston as he scored 22 points and grabbed 15 rebounds. He accounted for big chunk of the Blue Dragons' 48-26 advantage in points in the paint.
Up next for Cloud County will be a tough road test at 8 p.m. Saturday against Seward County Community College, which has dropped back-to-back KJCCC games to start its season.
"Seward County is going to be a different animal," Eshbaugh said. "It's a really difficult team to prepare for. It always has athletes, they're well coached, it's a six-hour bus ride to get there, and we have to turn the page. That's going to be a common theme this year with 26 conference games. You don't have time to pout about the last game or celebrate because the next one is coming fast."