CONCORDIA, Kansas — The Cloud County Community College men's basketball team suffered a heartbreaking 82-76 loss to Pratt Community College on Thursday, ending the No. 4 seeded T-Birds season in the first round of the Region VI Tournament.
The T-Birds (20-11 overall, 16-10 KJCCC) notched double-digits victories in each of the two regular season matchups against the Beavers (11-19 overall, 8-18 KJCCC). But the third time was the charm for Pratt, which entered the contest second in the conference in scoring and connected on 53 percent of its field goal attempts Thursday.
"Pratt made more plays than we did, to its credit. They finished around the basket and we had a real difficult time keeping them out of the paint," said Cloud County head coach, Chad Eshbaugh. "We didn't do a very good job of finishing the first half when we had a good chance to go in to halftime with a good lead. Then when we did get a little push to begin the second half, we weren't able to maintain it."
Cloud County led by as many as 14 with six minutes remaining in the first half, but had its lead whittled down to 42-37 at the break.
Pratt, which owned a 48-28 advantage in points in the paints, pulled even with the T-Birds at 50-50 with 14:18 remaining. That set the stage for a back-and-forth slugfest the rest of the way where neither team held a lead larger than three until a layup by Jaylon Wilson with 1:30 remaining put the Beavers up 78-73.
Sophomore point guard Aamahne Santos, who poured in a game-high 22 points, answered back with a driving layup to get the T-Birds back to within one possession at 78-75.
Cloud forced a stop the ensuing Pratt possession, and had a chance to possibly cut the lead to one or tie, but Pratt's A.J. Banks came up with a pivotal blocked shot in transition with 36 seconds remaining.
The T-Birds were forced to foul and the Beavers sealed the game by going 4-for-4 from the free-throw line in the final seconds.
The loss was a bitter end to an otherwise tremendous 2016-17 season for Cloud County, which was preseason picked No. 11 in the KJCCC.
Cloud's 20 wins doubled last year's win total and was the first 20-win season for the T-Birds since the 2011-12 campaign.
The T-Birds' roster consisted of eight sophomores, all of whom played instrumental parts to Cloud's success during the course of its turnaround season.
This was a really good team that came as close as any I've had in awhile at maximizing potential. We were not a really talented crew, but they played well together, liked each other and they were fun to coach," Eshbaugh said. "(Thursday) is a hard night. It's over. It's abrupt. It's sudden. You know you've been working nonstop since August and it ends in one night. Tonight is a night to mourn a little bit. But this has been a great group and I'll sure miss them."