The zone defense employed by Hays through the Rick Keltner era has provided much angst for opponents, but perhaps not any more frustration than for Garden City coach Jacy Holloway and his Buffaloes.
During the previous seven seasons, Holloway’s Buffs have struggled mightily against the Indians, winning just one game of the last 14 times they’ve met.
Friday night at The Garden, it was a downpour of 3-point shooting that sank the Buffaloes, this time an 82-53 runaway by the Indians that left no doubt that they are the team to beat in the Western Athletic Conference.
Both teams had come in 2-0 in the WAC, but the Buffs simply couldn’t keep up with the running and gunning Indians, who poured in 17 — yep, count ‘em — 17 3-point buckets.
In addition, the baffling match-up zone employed by the Indians enticed the Buffs into 19 costly turnovers, many of which led to quick transition 3-point bombs.
The biggest of the bombers was senior guard Tragdon McCrae, who swished nine of them on his own and finished with a career-high 36 points. His nine 3s tied the school record set several seasons ago by Isaiah Nunnery.
“They do such a good job of speeding you up and getting you into transition, and they are so fast at it,” GCHS’ Holloway said afterward. “Most times, they’ll let you have a shot that you think is a good one, but it’s one they don’t mind you taking. Then, if it’s a miss, they’re taking off and they get cross half-court, and it’s two or three steps and a shot goes up.”
The Indians have averaged more than 30 3-point attempts per game this season, but had also been hitting on just 30 percent of them. Friday night, it was a blistering 50 percent at 17 of 34. McCrae alone was 9 of 12 from behind the arc.
“As much as people want to talk about the 3s, it was our transition defense that set everything up for us tonight,” said veteran Hays coach Rick Keltner, now in his 33rd season at HHS. “The kids are starting to understand how to guard people in their areas, and I thought that was the biggest reason for us getting out early.”
The Buffs did their best to keep pace with the Indians, but eventually not even a solid night of scoring for them was enough to stay within range.
After one quarter, it was 25-20 Hays, and the Indians had already connected on seven shots behind the arc.
“We did a lot of good things early, didn’t turn it over so much and rebounded well,” Holloway said. “But at some point, we just don’t have the same kind of offensive firepower they do. When a team is hitting 50 percent from that distance, you’re not gonna have a lot of success against them.”
It was the second, and then the third quarter, where the Buffs fizzled while the Indians sizzled. Hays made six more treys in the second quarter and outscored the Buffs 22-11 and went in with a commanding 47-31 halftime advantage.
“We were staying with them until late in the second,” said Holloway of what had been a 35-31 Hays margin with 4:03 left before halftime. But four deadly 3s in the final 3:50 did the Buffs in.
Then it got worse in the third quarter, Hays turning the jets on even more, outscoring the Buffs 20-13 and enjoying a 67-44 pad heading to the fourth.
The 30-point plus advantage set the running clock in motion, and yet the Indians still managed to put 15 points up on the board while limiting the Buffs to nine.
“Jacy’s got a good team. It was just one of those good nights for us, when everything was working for us,” said Keltner, who admitted it was one of his team’s best defensive efforts of the season. “We’re fortunate to have good kids, who work hard at the game.”
The Buffs had a balanced scoring attack with six players scoring six or more points, led by Jayden Crook and Demarcus Elliott with 10 each.
But nothing could offset the fireworks of McCrae, who torched the nets from everywhere. Ironically, one of his few misses of the night came on a fast-break layup that clanked the rim.
Ethan Nunnery, another deep threat, made three of five from deep and finished with 14 points. In all, the Indians finished 25 of 51 for just under 50 percent shooting.
The Buffs finished hitting 20-of-54 shots for 37 percent, far below what Holloway said would be necessary to combat the Indians’ hot hands.
“You watch film, and practice and try to explain the speed of their transition, and I don’t think the kids fully realized just how quickly they get it down and put it up,” said Holloway. “But they do now.”
The lone bright spot came in rebounding, where the Buffs held a narrow 33-32 edge, with Jarrod Springston topping the effort with seven boards. Nunnery matched that for the Indians.
The Buffs will now prepare for their annual trek to the Valley Center January Jam, where they will open the tournament on Thursday with a 2:07 tip-off against Topeka Seaman. They are now 2-1 in the WAC and 6-3 overall.
Hays, meanwhile, improved to 3-0 and 7-2. Their next outing will be Thursday against Manhattan in the Dodge City Tournament of Champions at United Wireless Arena.