CONCORDIA, Kansas — Developing mental toughness has been a point of emphasis for the Cloud County Community College men's basketball team. On Saturday, it was on full display as the T-Birds erased an 11-point, second-half deficit to upend Cowley College, 82-69.
"It's great to start seeing us overcome what has been one of our biggest struggling points, which has been our mental toughness," said Cloud County head coach, Jordan Altman. "So many of our games this season we've had a lapse for 6-7 minutes and it'd cost us a ball game. (Saturday), maybe we had that for 90 seconds to two minutes to begin the second half. But as I told the guys, I almost feel more proud of the win because they came an 11-point deficit to win with a 13-point advantage. That'll help me sleep tonight."
Cloud County's comeback is made more impressive by the fact it did so short-handed.
The visiting Tigers (11-4 overall, 8-3 KJCCC) came in to Saturday's matchup tied atop the KJCCC standings. The T-Birds (5-9 overall, 3-8 KJCCC) entered without their leading scorer and rebounder, redshirt sophomore forward Ramion Burt Jr., due to injury.
In his absence, freshman forward Breyon Jackson had a career night filling in for Burt's role as the go-to big. Jackson poured in 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting and grabbed 12 rebounds — each career highs — to record his first double-double.
"If that's the light switch going on for Bre, and if we can get those kinds of performances from him the rest of the year, we're going to be a dangerous team," Altman said. "When one of your best players goes down, usually someone has to step up. That's what you need. His intensity and effort (Saturday) were incredible tonight. His energy set the tone for the whole team."
Redshirt freshman Alvin Thompson also posted a career-high 20 points Saturday, 17 of which came in the first half to keep the T-Birds in the game. Thompson was lethal in the paint and from the mid-range as she shot an economical 6-of-8 to help Cloud go into the half even with Cowley at 36-36.
"A lot of people probably have his scouting report as a driver and slasher, and those are certainly his best qualities, but we've always had a lot of faith in his mid-range, pull-up jumper," Altman said. "That played right into how Cowley was defending us in the first half. They were packing the lane, trying to stop him from getting to the rim, and he made great reads to just pull up from 15 feet."
Cowley College started the second half on an 11-0 run to take a 47-36 lead with 16:38 remaining.
Cloud County was able to regroup and slowly chip away at the deficit, getting back within one at 66-65 with 5:11 remaining following a three-point play cashed in by Jackson.
The T-Birds took their first lead of the second half at 68-66 with 4:01 remaining when freshman forward Adetomi Ayilara, who received his first career start due to Burt Jr.'s injury, got a baby hook to fall.
Ayilara then nailed a 3-pointer on Cloud County's next possession to bump the lead to 71-66. He finished with eight points, all of which came in the second half and after he started the night 0-for-6 shooting the basketball.
"He arguably hit two of the biggest shots of the entire game," said Altman, referring to Ayilara. "It's hard to explain the type of mental toughness that is required to do something like that after he had started the game 0-for-6 shooting."
With the momentum in hand, Cloud County was able to close out the Tigers as Cowley never inched closer than three points over the final 3:39.
Sophomore point guard Solomon Finley quietly had a well-rounded performance in the victory, as well, finishing with nine points, five rebounds and four assists.
The T-Birds will look to build off the momentum when they head back out on the road Wednesday to face Allen County Community College. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.