CONCORDIA, Kansas — It was a tale of two halves for the Cloud County Community College men's basketball team in its 96-93 heartbreaking loss to Neosho County Community College on Wednesday.
The T-Birds (3-6 overall, 1-5 KJCCC) dominated the first 20 minutes, shooting 43 percent from the floor — 54 percent from beyond the 3-point line — while limiting the visiting Panthers (4-5 overall, 2-4 KJCCC) to 24 percent shooting.
"It really was (our best half). We hit shots," said Cloud County head coach, Jordan Altman. "We've struggled from outside throughout the year and we had some guys step up and really hit some shots. I thought our bench played particularly well."
Freshmen guards JaVary Christmas and Jerome Kidd Jr. led the charge as Christmas went 4-of-6 from the field en route to scoring 12 first-half points off the bench. Kidd Jr. added eight first-half points, including a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that sent Cloud County into the locker rooms up 46-23.
Christmas (16 points) and Kidd Jr. (14 points) finished the evening with career highs in points.
"(Our guys) thought it was over at halftime. I can't you how many times we as coaches have gone into the half in a good position and told them 'it's not over, it's not over, it's not over,'" Altman said. "I almost prefer that we're down at half. It gives us something to play for in the second half."
The final 20 minutes turned south on the T-Birds as Neosho County scored via a field goal or free throws on 16 straight possessions to erase the 23-point deficit to climb back to even at 69-69 with just over eight minutes remaining.
Cloud tried to answer back with a mini 8-0 run on a pair of free throws from Christmas and two deep 3-pointers from Kidd Jr., but Neosho County's momentum couldn't be stopped. The Panthers responded with an 11-0 run of their own to take the lead for good.
The frustration on defense was compounded by 11 missed free throws in the second half for the T-Birds in critical situations.
"We missed an awful lot of free throws in the second half," Altman said. "If we would have just hit our free throws, I don't think we would have ever given up lead if we just hit our free throws. Then we stopped attacking."
Despite the miscues, the T-Birds had a chance to pull the game out at the end, cutting the deficit to one at 91-90 on a four-point play from sophomore guard Solomon Finley with 45.3 seconds remaining.
Cloud County got a defensive stop on the other end, but a foul was called on a box-out attempt by guard Andre Soza, allowing Neosho's Braden Larcom to go to the free-throw where he went 2-for-2 to push the lead back up to 93-90.
Redshirt sophomore forward Ramion Burt Jr. and freshman forward Breyon Jackson joined Christmas and Kidd Jr. in double figures. Burt Jr. finished with 15 points, nine in the second half, while Jackson tied his career high with 13 points.
Cloud County will look to shake off Wednesday's loss when it heads back out on the road Saturday to face Colby Community College. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m.