By Gene Phelps
CLINTON – Kansas was so close Friday night, Northeast was ready to pack.
The underdog Tigers, looking to earn a return trip to the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas, for the second straight season, suffered two turnovers in the final two minutes that allowed No. 8-ranked Jones to escape with a 91-88 victory and a Region 23 title.
Despite the miscues, Northeast (21-8) still had an opportunity to tie the score and send the game to overtime, but Leroy Buchanan’s 3-pointer danced in and out of the basket at the buzzer.
“We had those two empty trips, but we had the ball in our hands late,” Northeast coach Cord Wright said. “Honestly, I think we left it on the floor. Credit Jones, their kid made two pressure free throws.
“One or two plays here and there. That’s how good games are. That’s how championships are won and lost.”
Jones sealed the win on four consecutive free throws by Rickey Holden, who led his team with 24 points.
Buchanan, a sophomore guard, didn’t miss many. He scored a game-high 34 points and shot the Tigers back into the game down the stretch. His layup with 33 seconds remaining cut Jones’ lead to 87-86.
Buchanan’s sixth 3-pointer cut Jones’ lead to 87-84 with 2:27 remaining. However, the Tigers turned the ball over on their next two possessions.
Northeast entered the tournament as the defending Region 23 champion, but lost to Jones for the second time this season. The Bobcats (28-1) beat the Tigers 77-52 on March 2 at the MACJC State Tournament in Ellisville.
Northeast trailed by as many as 12 points in the first half, but rallied after Jones’ Bruce Stevens scored on a layup to give the Bobcats a 32-20 lead.
The Tigers, who shot just 38 percent from the field in the opening 20 minutes, went on a 16-4 run to tie the score at 36-all with 7:02 remaining in the half.
Buchanan connected on three 3-pointers during Northeast’s run.
Corinth sophomore Kendall Stafford added another perimeter bomb during the Tigers’ surge.