A year ago, the biggest deficiency for Central Christian College’s men’s basketball team was its inability to close out games.
The Tigers finished with a 17-14 record — the worst during the wildly successful Tony Romero era – but they could easily have been 22-9 had they been able to protect late leads.
Deja vu appeared to be setting in here Wednesday during the Tigers’ season opener against the Friends Falcons, who were one of the two KCAC representatives in the NAIA National Tournament last year. Central was riding an emotional high due to a spirited Alexander Arena crowd, running and dunking its way to a 22-point lead with 16 minutes to go, only to see Friends roar back within one, 79-78, with just under 5 minutes left.
Despite a few ill-advised decisions, Central escaped with an 87-82 victory to perhaps send the other KCAC teams on its schedule a message. It plays six of them this year, including Kansas Wesleyan twice.
“We want to play fast, but we want to play a lot more disciplined,” said Romero, whose team at times upped the frenetic pace beyond the speed limit even by its standards. “A lot of it (Friends’ comeback) came due to a lack of defense. Credit them, they made shots and we missed wide-open looks and we started playing a little tense. Good thing is we got tested and came out with the victory somehow.”
Friends returns four starters from its national team and has added several newcomers that gives it the deep bench it didn’t have last year.
Central had fire coming out of its fingertips in the first half, making 21 of 39 shots — 7 of 9 from 3-point. Michael Gholston was raining 3s from everywhere for 23 first-half points, while highlight film Alonzo Stafford performed a high-wire act with five dunks as the Tigers nearly burned out the scoreboard for a 57-43 lead.
The Tigers started the second half on an 8-0 run for a seemingly safe 65-43 advantage, but the Falcons never panicked. The lead began to melt, but the Falcons could never pull even and the Tigers made just enough free throws to hang on.
Gholston finished with 27 points and Stafford scored 21. Sam Clayborn chipped in with 15 and Ernest Burton came off the bench for 12, including 10 in the first half.
“We know we can score,” said Romero, whose team was missing injured guard Jerome Jackson while three other players won’t be eligible until semester as that tests the Tigers’ depth. “I know we’re a lot better defensive team than we were tonight.”
Friends’ starting five all hit for double figures, led by Toby Baxter with 15 points.
Central hosts another KCAC school on Friday when Kansas Wesleyan comes to town. The Coyotes lost to Baker 70-69 in its season debut on Wednesday.
Game time is 7:30 p.m.
CCC (87) — Gholson 27, Stafford 21, Nwosuh 5, Clayborn 15, Burton 12, Robbins 7.
Friends (82) — Singhateh 11, Ratliff 14, Johnson 12, Williams 12, Baxter 15, Osborn 8, Rowe 2, Varmall 8.