Barton County takes control of KJCCC men’s basketball race

ARKANSAS CITY, Kan. (KSNW) — The top two men’s basketball teams in the Kansas Jayhawk Community College Conference battled last Saturday night at W.S. Scott Auditorium in Arkansas City.

It was also a match-up of two Top 10 nationally ranked teams. No. 3 Barton County (21-1) avenged its only loss of the season, handing No. 10 Cowley County (19-3) only its third loss of the season 75-73. Barton improved to 15-1 in the conference and now holds a one-game lead over Cowley (14-2).

In a hard-fought contest that featured seven ties and six lead changes, Barton County finished with a kick, going on a 10-0 run to take a 68-60 lead with 3:28 remaining.

It was Barton County’s 12th straight win since a home loss to Cowley on Nov. 29.

Ring Malith scored 16 of his game-high 18 points in the first half. LaJae Jones posted a double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds. Brent Moss added 14 points off the bench.

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Barton County had been looking forward to this rematch.

Across the street from the watchful eyes of the Cowley County mascot, a statue of a roaring Tiger, the Cougars stepped off the charter for their biggest game of the season.

“Everybody’s making this out to be a really big game, and it is, but we still have a lot of basketball to play throughout the rest of the year. And this is just another game on our schedule,” said Barton County head coach Jeremy Coombs.

Coombs won 17 games in his first season at Barton. He won 24 in his second season. This is his third.

“Today’s a big test when we play Barton,” said Cowley County head coach Donnie Jackson. “This should be a good measuring stick if we’re kind of contender or pretender status.

Like Coombs, Jackson is in his third season at Cowley County. Both head coaches face the challenges of building winning programs with constantly revolving junior college rosters.

“Really, we base it on family. You know, these kids that we recruit are great kids. They may come from nothing, or they may come from something, and so then we gel those guys into what we call our basketball family or my family, which entails all the kids I’ve ever recruited throughout the years,” said Coombs.

“Every day, we work hard coming together to be one as a family, and basically, coach does a good job of making sure we’re all on the same page. Everybody’s happy,” said Barton sophomore guard Mozae Downing-Rivers.

“It’s just a really good community with the Great Bend people. The community is really great,” said Barton sophomore guard LaJae Jones.

For Jackson, building a winner at Cowley County hasn’t taken much time at all. The former head coach at Northern Oklahoma College-Tonkawa has the Tigers in the thick of the KJCCC title race.

“I finally feel we’re close to getting it how things were when my last couple of years at NOC-Tonkawa when we were 52-6, and we went to Hutch back-to-back years. Now, we haven’t gotten there yet. You know, we still have a ways to go. We’re trying to find our niche within the Jayhawk Conference, but at least this year shows that it’s a step in the right direction,” said Jackson.

Both Coombs and Jackson lean on Kansas talent.

“They (Barton) have a lot of Kansas kids, and we have Kansas kids with Marcus Zeigler and Damare Smith,” said Jackson.

“I’ve got kids from Australia. I’ve got kids from Sudan. I’ve got a ton of kids from Kansas. We start three Kansas kids. It’s a bunch of guys that we’ve gotten from all over the country, all over the world, and we’ve been able to gel together,” said Coombs.

Barton County led Saturday’s rematch by as many as 12 in the first half and held a 38-27 advantage at halftime. It didn’t take long for the Tigers to tie it up at 52-52 and again at 54-54. Cowley took a 60-58 lead, then Barton went on a 10-0 run to put it away.

“It felt really great. They got us at our house, and we knew we had to come in and get one in their place,” said Jones.

“Coach emphasized being tough. Whoever wants it more is gonna win. We’re both talented teams. We just had to figure out a way to get it done,” added Downing-Rivers.

Now, Barton leads the conference at 15-1, but the Cougars still have eight games to play.

“If you want to win the conference, you got to go get some on the road, and you got to protect your house,” said Coombs.

The Cougars are chasing their first conference championship in 15 years.

“The main goal is to get a national championship, and we feel like the conference is ours, and we should already have the confidence to win that and then move on to the natty,” said Downing-Rivers.

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