Hutchinson Community College women's basketball players celebrate after winning the NJCAA Division 1 national championship on Monday in Casper, Wyo. Photo by Sammi Carpenter/Collegian staff

By Greta Klein
Staff writer

CASPER, Wyo.- Unmatched tension. 

The intensity in Ford Wyoming Center was unmatched when Hutchinson Community College freshman Hailey Jackson flung up a shot from behind the 3-point line, and getting fouled by Northwest Florida State with 0.7 seconds left in the second half, sending Jackson to the free-throw line. 

From shaking legs to looking through fingertips, the whole arena had a different level of intensity than any other game during the season. Blue Dragons manager Kieryn Ontjes, sitting on the bench, covered her face with her hands, too anxious to watch the three free throws that Jackson had to make to tie the game.

Jackson made all three free throws, which tied the game at 69. The Blue Dragons fought for five more minutes in overtime, securing the win, 88-80, and naming Hutchinson as NJCAA national champion for the first time.

Jackson, a 70 % free-throw shooter, went to the line with a calm mind. With a bounce and hand adjustment on the ball, the first shot went in. The second shot was another swish, but the third one made the crowd gasp. The ball rattled around the rim before falling through the net, tying the game and sending it into overtime.

For many players, being in that make-or-break situation is the reason athletes put in hard work and long hours in the gym. Several shy away from this rigorous task because it is stressful and difficult. Despite the challenge that Jackson faced, she knew how crucial those three free throws were.

“The very first thing I said when I stepped to the line was ‘God I hope you got me right here, we need it’,” Jackson said. “I was scared but at the same time, I knew we needed those free throws.”

Blue Dragons coach John Ontjes had sheer confidence in Jackson and her ability to do her part.

“For Hailey to step up in that situation and make three free throws with little to no time on the clock was clutch for us,” Ontjes said. “I was not nervous for her, it was great to see her step to the line and shoot the basketball with confidence.”

Fouls early on in the game contributed to both teams having key players out. But in overtime, the Blue Dragons freshmen outscored Northwest Florida 19-11. That helped give the Blue Dragons their first national championship in the program’s 50th year of existence. 

Winning the national championship game was quite an accomplishment for Ontjes and his team. Ontjes has made three other appearances in the national championship game, in 2012, 2014 and 2015, but never got the sweet taste of victory until this year. 

“The first one is bittersweet,” Ontjes said. “I told the players before the game that the journey getting here was so special. I didn’t care about the outcome, I would only be disappointed that we would not have the ability to battle together anymore.”

Adding to the night of being national champions, Kiki Smith was the tournament’s most valuable player. Smith, a freshman from Topeka, scored 23 points.

“I love this team,” Smith said. “Winning this with this team is something that I will never forget. Especially with this group of girls, it’s something so special.”

The Blue Dragons ended the season 37-0.

“It’s been a season of a lot of positives,” Ontjes said. “This group is amazing at how tough they are. I’m so proud of our program. The leadership we have allows us to be a program to continue year in and year out.”

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