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T-Birds Edge Howard, Earn NJCAA Berth

T-Birds Edge Howard, Earn NJCAA Berth photo 3/8/2014 8:33:56 a.m. - Hobbs, NM. (Story and photo courtesy of Clayton Jones/News-Sun)

     LUBBOCK — The 18th-ranked New Mexico Junior College men’s basketball team’s season and a trip the NJCAA National Tournament hung in the balance as Thunderbird point guard Jeff Newberry dribbled the ball on the perimeter with under a minute left against Howard College.

   NMJC clung to a slim 58-57 lead as the Hawks used a 13-2 run in a four-minute span to cut the T-Birds’ lead from 12 to one.  

   Newberry, an Oklahoma State signee, took off as the shot clock neared zero. The sophomore sliced through the lane, got into the paint and scored on an off-balance leaner with 44.1 seconds left to give the T-Birds the   insurance they needed to beat the Hawks 64-60 Friday at Rip Griffin Center to earn a berth to the NJCAA National Tournament and reach the finals of the Region 5 Tournament.

   The T-Birds (26-5) get the berth since Region 5 has two automatic qualifying spots (four of the 16 regions get two berths each season while there are also four at-large berths). NMJC will play Hill College 2:30 p.m. (CST) today for the Region 5 title.

   “We just knew what was at   stake,” Newberry said. “We didn’t want the season to be over. Coach (James) Miller has been on us all year about playing hard and     getting it done. We weren’t going to let that slip through our hands. ... I actually thought we were going to run a play for (Madison) but Coach Miller put his trust in me. I just took it to the basket.

   “I know I can get to the basket, it’s just a matter of finishing.”

   While it was Newberry that closed the door on Howard (24-8), it was NMJC’s Rashaun Madison that saved his best performance of the season for the most important game of the season.

   Madison finished with 25 points and was 7-for-10 from beyond the arc, including a trio of 3-pointers that ignited a crucial second-half run to give NMJC the lead for good.  

   The T-Birds trailed 41-37 with under 12 minutes remaining, and after a pair of free throws by NMJC’s Kenrich Williams cut the Howard lead to two, Madison exploded.

   The sophomore drained a 3-pointer at the 11:01 mark to give NMJC a 42-41 lead, a 3-pointer with 10:29 left to make it 45-41, and after a bucket by Howard’s David Joseph, Madison hit his third 3-pointer in a row on a fastbreak where he pulled the ball out and stepped behind the arc to shoot it to make it 48-43 T-Birds with 9:06 left.  

   “I was hot. I was just kind of getting a feel for myself,” Madison said. “I thought, ‘Why not? Lets put up a heat check.’ and I hit it.”

   The NMJC run continued as a 3-pointer by Chris Boucher with 6:35 left and back-to-back baskets by Newberry made it 56-44 T-Birds with 5:23 remaining in the game.

   However Howard employed a full-court press and it gave the T-Birds fits as the Hawks went on a 13-2 run capped by a pair of free throws by Jalin Barnes to make it 58-57 NMJC with 1:13 left in the contest.

   “We had some silly turnovers that were uncharacteristic but that is OK,” NMJC coach James Miller said. “It is a game of runs. That’s what basketball is. ... But I was really proud of our kids not to fully crumble. They showed some good resiliency and toughness late in the game.”

   That’s when Newberry stepped up with arguably the   key bucket of the game to give the T-Birds a 60-57 advantage with 44.1 seconds remaining.

   NMJC’s Nevin Johnson then came up with a steal with 23.2 seconds left on Howard’s next possession and Newberry sank a pair of free throws with 20.1 left to put the game away.

   “Jeff has had the ball in his hands for us all year long, especially in crunch time,” Miller said of Newberry. “He   consistently makes plays and he consistently comes through for us. He’s a big-time player.”

   The Hawks hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to make the final score 64-60.

   To go along with Madison’s 25 points, Newberry finished with 14 points, five assists and two steals while Jeff Neverson had eight points and eight rebounds.

   The T-Birds were 11-for-26 from beyond the arc to make up for shooting 61.9 percent (13-for-21) from the free-throw line, including 4-for-11 in the first half.

   Travis Charles led Howard with 16 points while Demeco Blue had 11.  

   While the T-Birds have qualified for the national tournament starting March 17 in Hutchinson, Kan., Miller said his team still has one more goal to reach – winning a second straight Region 5 championship.

   “The program hadn’t been to Hutchinson for 18 years and now we are going in back-to-back years,” Miller said. “I told the guys before the game what we haven’t accomplished this year – getting to Hutch and winning a regional championship. Those are two goals we are really focused in on.

   “At the end of the day, we got to get ready to come back and play tomorrow.”  

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