Hays High mounts another double-digit comeback to stay perfect
HAYS, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - Hays High, ranked No. 1 in Class 5A, fell down by double figures for the third straight contest and trailed by 15 midway through the second quarter versus Dodge City. Early second half, HHS senior guard T.J. Nunnery had a steal and quickly dribbled down the court for a fast break layup.
He rose up, though missed the shot, drew a foul, and took a hard fall to the ground. Nunnery slid into the padding on the out-of-bounds wall. He slammed the padding in frustration. Nunnery’s first free throw popped in and out. He made the second one and cut Hays High’s deficit to nine points.
“When I got to the rim, I couldn’t really finish,” Nunnery said. “Felt like I was getting fouled, but I just had to play through it, find another way to score, get my teammates open.”
Nunnery overcame the struggles and delivered several moments of positivity down the stretch for Hays High. HHS fashioned another comeback in a 44-38 home victory in Western Athletic Conference play Friday. Nunnery tallied a team-best 13 points, another big performance in a close Indian win.
“T.J. is one of the most competitive guys on our team,” Hays High coach Alex Hutchins said. “T.J. and I have talked a lot about how his best games are usually in our biggest games or toughest games. He does seem to rise to the occasion, and so tonight was no exception. I do think he was frustrated with the lack of whistles early, and maybe let it get to him a time or two, but I thought he locked in and got the job done when he needed to.”
With 50.3 seconds left and Hays High ahead 40-38, Nunnery missed the front end of a 1-and-1. The ball caromed to the right side. Nunnery noticed HHS junior Jordan Dale on the left side of the Dodge City player. Nunnery ran over to trap. He forced a tie-up and jump ball with 47.5 seconds left. The play yielded a technical foul on first-year DC coach Shane Traughber.
“I probably could have picked a better moment in the game to do that,” Traughber said. “I don’t allow my players to talk to the refs, so I felt like I needed to stand up for them a little bit. But yeah, it’s just one of those things where emotions got the best of us all, and I wanted to get a point across and probably did it in not the right moment.”
Then, Hays High senior Jason Krannawitter sunk a pair of free throws to put the Indians up 42-38. Nunnery added another free throw to help seal the win. When the game ended, he slapped hands with Hutchins.
Hays High improved to 15-0 overall, 5-0 in the WAC. The much-improved Red Demons stand at 9-5, 3-1 in conference play after a four-win season. Sophomore Cooper Loll paced Dodge City with 15 points. HHS has captured 23 straight victories after a Class 5A Forever Four showing last winter.
The season was cut short entering the state semifinals from coronavirus. The ’19-20 Hays High squad was honored Friday. Hays High, Class 6A Blue Valley Northwest, 4A Bishop Miege and Class 1A, Division I Little River are the only boys’ Forever Four teams that have not lost this winter.
“Whenever we are down, I try to do whatever I can to score, get us back going, get our momentum going,” Nunnery said.
Last Friday, Hays High came back from 19 and defeated Salina Central at the buzzer, the biggest comeback of Hutchins’ career. On Tuesday, HHS briefly trailed by double figures at struggling Scott City. On Friday, the Indians made zero treys in the first half. DC built a 22-7 advantage and led 26-15 at halftime in a physical game.
“It’s exciting when you get the momentum going your way, but it’s kind of scary when it’s not going your way how you want it,” Nunnery said. “We just stayed focused, slowed it down on offense. We were going way too fast, trying to match their pace.”
Late in the second quarter, HHS junior Carson Kieffer and Dodge City senior Matt Friess had a big collision. The game stopped for several minutes as Friess was helped off the court. Friess did return, and Traughber hoped it was only a “bad” ankle sprain. He is expected to get X-rays Saturday.
“Obviously, the refs were letting a lot go,” Traughber said. “So we can’t use that as an excuse. We have to fight through that no matter what. I was just real proud of our guys being undersized and winning the rebounding battle, just playing tough down there. But just hats off to Hays as well.”
Hutchins had a short halftime speech. Hutchins said he plans to take a “deeper dive” into his team to examine the slow starts.
“We felt like the defense was solid,” Hutchins said. “Our worst defensive nightmares were our offense, though. Our offense was creating so many problems for us on the other end, because we are spending three-quarters of the first half on defense. If it was a football game and if it was time of possession in the first half, I think we lose by a wide margin.”
Last winter, Nunnery paced Hays High with 10.3 points a contest on a 17-6 season. This year, Nunnery has improved to 4.1 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 52 percent from the field, 30 percent on treys and 68 percent for free throws. However, Nunnery’s shot attempts went from 8.2 to 4.4 a contest. Last year, Hutchins believed Nunnery at times was “too aggressive.”
“Then, at the beginning of the year this year, it almost seemed like he had taken his foot off the gas too much,” Hutchins said. “…I do think he’s playing a much more well-rounded game this year.”
In the 57-35 comeback win versus Scott City on Tuesday, Nunnery tallied a season-high 13 points. He matched that Friday, but not without some struggles through the first two-plus quarters. After the hard fall, he quickly sank two baskets and helped cut Hays High’s deficit to 32-28 with 2:09 left in the quarter. DC led 35-30 entering the fourth.
“So far in the big moments, he’s somebody that we definitely rely on,” Hutchins said. “Because he always seems to rise to the occasion.”
Then, Nunnery delivered a huge 3 from the left corner with 2:03 left in the contest. It came from the same spot that he made key shots from in the Salina Central comeback. The 3-pointer elicited a huge exclamation from Nunnery and plenty of noise from the largest Indian crowd this winter. HHS never trailed again.
“We felt like we needed it,” Nunnery said. “It changed the whole momentum. Got the fans going, and just after that, it was over.”
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