Rangers capture 4th at NJCAA National tournament

by Tommy Wells – Ranger College

RANGER, Texas – HUTCHINSON, KS – The Ranger College men’s basketball team etched its name deep into the Eastland County sports history books this past weekend with an outstanding performance at the 2016 NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships.
Really, really deep.

The Rangers, in their first season under the direction of head coach Billy Clyde Gillispie, became to most successful college basketball team in Ranger College history – as well as Eastland County – by racing to a fourth-place finish at the national tournament last week in Hutchinson, Kansas. The fourth-place finish surpasses the Rangers’ previous best finish of sixth in 1967.

“This is an outstanding accomplishment by a great group of young men,” said Ranger College President William J. Campion. “We couldn’t be more proud of them for what they have accomplished. They have set the bar high for future teams.”

As part of their historic outing, the Rangers shattered several long-standing marks, including reeling off 28 straight wins en route to climbing to No. 10 in the national polls and claiming the Northern Texas Junior College Athletic Conference championship. Following a stunning loss to Odessa College in the championship game of the Region V Basketball Championships in Brownwood, the Rangers were awarded an at-large bid to the national tournament.
The Rangers proved the NJCAA selection committee made the right selection. The RC men won their first three games at the tournament and advanced to the semifinals before suffering a controversial 84-81 overtime loss to Hutchinson.

Despite the loss, Ranger College created a unique spot for itself in college basketball history. With its 31 victories this season, Ranger earned the distinction of having put together the greatest single-season turnaround in college basketball history – regardless of classification. The Rangers’ 29-game improvement from 2014-15 to 2015-2016 easily bettered the mark set in 2014 by the Towson Tigers, who posted a 17.5-game improvement two years ago by going from 1-31 in 2013 to 18-13 the following year.

Towson’s 17.5-game improvement eclipsed a plus-17 turnaround shared by Mercer (2002-03) and UTEP (2003-04). The UTEP team, which was coached by Gillispie, improved from 6-24 in 2003 to 24-8 the following season.
Below is a game-by-game recap of Ranger College’s appearance at the 2016 NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships.

Round 1
Rangers roll to win over E. Mississippi State in NJCAA opener

Ranger College freshman Jordan Geist drives past Eastern Mississippi's Nat Dixon for a basket during the Rangers' first-round win over the Lions
Ranger College freshman Jordan Geist drives past Eastern Mississippi’s Nat Dixon for a basket during the Rangers’ first-round win over the Lions

Kris Clyburn pushed in a game-high 22 points and Jonathan Perez drained four three-pointers and helped carry the Ranger College men’s basketball team to a convincing 83-63 romp over East Mississippi in the first round of the 69th Annual NJCAA National Basketball Championships. The Rangers led by as many as 24 points late in the contest, which was held on March 15 in the Hutchinson Sports Arena.

Despite seeing his team commit an uncharacteristic number of turnovers, head coach Billy Gillispie said he was pleased with the Rangers’ effort.

“We didn’t play as well as we wanted, but anytime you can come out on top in a win-or-go-home situation you have to be happy,” said Gillispie. “We’re excited to move along.”

Ranger College rode the hot shooting of Chase Carlton and Trey Conrod to a quick lead. The Rangers outscored East Mississippi by a 38-22 clip in the first 20 minutes and rolled to a 16-point lead.

RC, which owned a 40-37 advantage on the boards, also garnered a shutdown effort from Josh Simmons. In addition to pushing in six points, he grabbed a game-high 14 rebounds and blocked two shots.

Perez helped spark a 45-point second-half outburst by RC. He buried three treys in the final 20 minutes. Freshman Doc Archibald also added a three-point shot during the second-half spree.

Perez finished the contest with 13 points.

Jordan Geist and Johnathan Turner also played well for the Rangers. Both finished with eight points.
Overall, 13 of the 15 members of the Rangers’ roster posted points in the game.

With the victory, Ranger College advanced to the second round of the 24-team tournament to face East Florida. The game is set for 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

Round 2
Ranger rolls into Elite Eight with win over Eastern Florida State

Ranger College freshman Trey Conrod shoots over the top of two Eastern Florida State College defenders during the quarterfinal round.
Ranger College freshman Trey Conrod shoots over the top of two Eastern Florida State College defenders during the second round of the Championships.

The Ranger College men’s basketball team moved a step closer to historic heights on Wednesday evening in front of a large crowd in the Hutchinson Sports Arena. The team earned its second-ever trip to the quarterfinal round of the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament with a resounding 87-74 second-round victory over Eastern Florida State University.

With the victory, Ranger College earned a berth in the quarterfinal round opposite Georgia Highlands College on Thursday.

Eastern Florida came out strong in the early minutes of the game. After Jordan Geist had given RC a slim 6-5 lead with a layup, the Titans found their offensive game. Down by one just 1:07 into the contest, the Titans pounded out off 12 straight points in the ensuing 2:20 and took a stunning 17-6 lead.

Chase Carlton finally ended the Titans’ run at the 15:38 mark of the first half by pulling up from the top of the key and draining the first of his three first-half three-point shots. His shot ignited a 15-2 run by the Rangers that all but took the air out of Eastern Florida State’s attack.

Following a basket by Eastern Florida State’s B.J. Gladded that upped the Titans’ lead to 10, at 19-9, Carlton sparked a 12-0 outburst by Ranger College with another long distance bomb. From there, Kris Clyburn, Trey Conrod and Geist pumped in points to tie the game at 19-19 with 11:27 left in the opening frame.

Less than 30 seconds after Geist’s shot that knotted the score, Johnathan Turner put RC back on top by taking a lob pass from Josh Simmons and converting it into a thundering dunk.

The first of Turner’s two dunks put RC up 21-19.

Ranger College expanded its lead to as much as six points, at 33-27, later in the period before Eastern Florida State managed to regroup. The Titans, who had entered the tournament as the No. 6 seed after finishing the regular season at 27-5, scored seven unanswered points, including a three-point shot from Jalen Glover, and took a 34-33 advantage.

Again, Ranger made sure EFSC’s lead was short lived. Just 1:21 after Glover had given the Titans the lead, Turner grabbed an offensive rebound and slammed the ball home to put RC back on top, 35-34.

The Rangers, who were coming off an 83-63 win over East Mississippi in the first round, closed out the first half with a flurry. Geist scored seven of his game-high 29 points in the final 2:02 of the period and led Ranger College on a 12-5 run that sent the Rangers into the half holding a 47-40 cushion.

Eastern Florida saw its deficit increase to 10 twice early in the second half before rallying back. After Geist had buried two free throws with 17:12 left in regulation to put RC up 54-44, EFSC hit stride. The Titans posted an 18-6 spree over the next six minutes and regained a 62-61 lead.

That turned out to be the Eastern Florida’s final hurrah.

Simmons put RC on top for good at the 10:08 mark of the second half by taking a pass from Carlton into the corner and draining a three-pointer. Simmons’ basket staked the Rangers to a 64-62 cushion. Seconds later, Clyburn knocked down another trey and ballooned RC’s lead to five, at 67-62.

Clyburn enjoyed a stellar outing for RC. A freshman, he came off the bench to record 18 points and 10 rebounds.
Ranger College finished off the contest with a 20-12 run over the final 10 minutes of play.

Simmons and Conrod also turned in strong performance for Ranger College. Simmons finished with 15 points and narrowly missed a double-double effort with nine boards. Conrod contributed 10 points.

Carlton, who went 3-for-6 from behind the three-point arc, closed out the affair with nine points and a game-high five assists.

C.J. Jackson led all EFSC scorers with 23 points. Gladden chalked up 16 points and 16 rebounds.

Round 3
Ranger advances to ‘Final Four’ with win over No. 3 Georgia Highlands

Ranger College freshman Kris Clyburn drives between two defenders for a basket during the semifinal round.
Ranger College freshman Kris Clyburn drives between two defenders for a basket during the quarterfinal round.

Ranger College head coach Billy Clyde Gillispie admitted his team didn’t play the prettiest game of the season on Thursday evening in front of a large crowd in the Hutchinson Sports Arena. But, he said, it didn’t really matter in the end because even an ugly win in the quarterfinal round of the NJCAA Men’s Division I National Basketball Championships is a masterpiece.

If that is so, better call the Rangers a Picasso because they turned in a work of art. Five players scored into double figures and spurred the Rangers to a thrilling 91-81 victory over No. 3 seed Georgia Highlands.

“We’re really lucky to be advancing,” said Gillispie. “We didn’t play our smartest or best game but that makes no difference at this point of the year. It doesn’t matter how it looks, you just try to win and move on. We’ve been able to do that.”

With the victory, the Rangers will advance to the NJCAA national semifinals on Friday to face off against Hutchinson (KS) Community College.

Josh Simmons delivered the blows that all but knocked out Highlands, which finished the year at 33-2. The freshman from Irmo, S.C. knocked down back-to-back three-point shots with less than 3 minutes left and squelched a late run by the Chargers that had whittled a 20-point deficit to just seven with 4:02 left in the contest.

After Immanuel Griggs had capped a 37-18 run over the first 16 minutes of the second half with a basket from within the paint, Ranger managed to regroup. Trey Conrod ended the Chargers’ momentum by taking a pass from Chase Carlton and pushing in a shot from the blocks.

Just 32 seconds later, Simmons drained the first of his two treys and upped the Rangers’ lead to double digits, at 84-72.

Highlands’ nightmare was just beginning, however. On Ranger’s ensuing possession, the 6-foot-6 forward beat the shot clock and drilled another trey, this time from the left wing. Simmons, who finished the game with a team-high 20 points, released the shot with just 1 second left on the shot clock.

Renard Thomas finished off the Rangers’ 10-0 run moments later with a pair of free throws.

Ranger College looked as if it would win going away early in the second half. Carlton and Conrod combined for the first four points of the stanza and built Rangers’ lead to 20, at 55-35.

Both Carlton and Conrod reached double figures in the win. A freshman from Austin, Carlton pumped in 14 points – nine via three treys – and dished out four assists. Conrod chalked up 10 points.

Highlands fought its way back into the contest. The Chargers reeled off a 35-14 run over the ensuing 14 minutes before Griggs’ shot pulled them to within seven.

Highlands held its own against Ranger in the first 10 minutes of the contest. Doniel Dean scored five of his 16 points in that span and helped the Chargers race to a 23-22 lead with 9:24 remaining in the initial half of play.
The Rangers hit another gear from there. Backed back by clutch shots from Conrod, Kris Clyburn, Carlton and Johnathan Turner, RC reeled off a 12-2 spree and built a stunning 9-point lead, at 34-35, with 6:43 left.
Clyburn was the lone RC player to register a double-double, posting 10 points and 12 rebounds. He also dished out three assists.

Jordan Geist added salt to the Chargers’ wounds on the final play of the half. The freshman guard knocked down a buzzer-beating three-pointer that capped a staggering 27-5 run over the final 9 minutes of the half.

Geist finished with 18 points, nine of which came from the free throw line. He also added seven rebounds and a game-high five assists.

As a team, Ranger College connected on 35 of its 48 free throw attempts in the contest. Highlands went to the charity stripe just 16 times, making 12.

Round 4
Rangers get ‘homered’ in semifinals

Ranger College freshman Kris Clyburns attempts to block a shot by Hutchinson's Akbar Hoffman during the semifinals on Friday.
Ranger College freshman Kris Clyburn attempts to block a shot by Hutchinson’s Akbar Hoffman during the semifinals on Friday.

The Hutchinson Community College Blue Dragons got 6,000 screaming fans. They got their bench, and their arena. And Ranger College got nothing down the stretch.

That recipe led to a controversial end to Ranger College’s national title hopes on Friday night in front of more than 6,000 fans in the semifinal round of the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships as Hutchinson rallied for an 84-81 come-from-behind victory in overtime. The Blue Dragons got three free throws from Keanu Pinder in the final 3:23 of play to break an 81-81 deadlock and net the decision.

“This was a really tough loss,” said RC head coach Billy Gillispie. “We had our sights set on winning a national championship as everyone did that came here. We gave an unbelievable effort. They just came out on top.”

The Rangers had an opportunity to claim the win in the closing seconds of regulation. After Akbar Hoffman had drawn a foul and hit the front end of a two-shot opportunity, Ranger regained possession and pushed the ball down the court. Freshman guard Jordan Geist threw up a three-point shot just before the final buzzer than bounded off the rim and sent the game in to OT.

Little went Ranger’s way from there. In the OT frame, Ranger College was whistled for two shot clock violations, the last of which cost RC a game-tying three-pointer by Geist with 21.8 seconds. After waiving off the shot initially, game officials huddled in front of the scorer’s table to review the play. Once they broke the huddle, they faced the Ranger end of the court and waived off the shot again.

“I thought he had a great chance,” said Gillispie. “I thought a lot of things could have happened on that particular play, but they didn’t. Unfortunately, it did go for us.”

As a team, Hutchinson outscored Ranger College by a 6-3 margin in the extra frame. All three of RC’s points game on a three-point shot by Kris Clyburn that knotted the game at 81-81 with 3:45 to play.

Following the contest, Hutchinson head coach Sam Eck praised the Rangers’ effort.

“That is the toughest team we have played all year,” he said. “That is one heckuva team. I see why they won 31 games this year.”

Ranger College freshman Josh Simmons helps align the Rangers' defense.
Ranger College freshman Josh Simmons helps align the Rangers’ defense.

It appeared Ranger College was on its way to win No. 32 early on. After falling behind by a 19-10 margin in the first 6:06 of play, the Rangers hit stride. Sparked by a baskets from Josh Simmons, Trey Conrod, Clyburn and a three-point shot from Jonathan Perez, RC pounded out a 10-0 spree over a 2:21 span and took a 20-19 cushion.
Just over seven minutes later, Carlton and Johnathan Turner combined for three unanswered points and pushed the Rangers’ lead to six, at 39-33, with 2:42 left in the first half.

The Blue Dragons rallied back. Hutchinson pumped in seven straight points over the ensuing 2:24 of play and took a slim 40-39 cushion.

Simmons silenced the Hutchinson crowd moments later. The 6-foot-6 freshman from Irmo, S.C. drilled a three-point shot from the left wing with 18 seconds left and carried Ranger College into the half with a 42-40 advantage.
Hutchinson fought its way back in the second half. Hoffman knocked down one of HCC’s nine treys with 2:58 left in the game to tie the game at 72-72. Bashir Ahmed followed moments later with a basket that gave the Blue Dragons a 74-72 cushion.

Geist, who had been forced to limp off the court with an ankle injury early in the first half, quieted the crowd again. The Fort Wayne, IN. standout scored back-to-back baskets with less than 2 minutes left to put RC on top again, at 76-74. After HCC had pulled even, Simmons put back an offensive rebound and put the Rangers up, 78-76.

“Both teams played their guts out,” said Gillispie. “Hats off to those guys for advancing to the championship. Hey, we laid it out on the line and it didn’t work out our way tonight.”

Simmons finished the contest with a double-double, including 22 points and 13 boards.

Hoffman drew a foul with 12.3 seconds left and subsequently made two free throws to tie the game at 78-78.
Conrod also finished the game in double figures for RC, netting 11 points. Turner and Carlton added nine and eight, respectively.

Despite the loss, members of the RC squad remained committed to finishing the year strong on Saturday in the third-place game against Gillette (WY) College.

“We just didn’t get the thread through the needle (against Hutchinson),” said Simmons. “We didn’t get what we wanted, but we’re going to leave here with something. We have pride. We didn’t get what we wanted but we’re going to leave our footprint on Kansas before we leave.”

With the win, Hutchinson improved to 31-4 and advances to play Salt Lake Community College in the 2016 national championship game.

Round 5
Rangers take 4th at 2016 NJCAA national tournament

The Ranger College men’s basketball team capped a historic season by taking fourth at the 2016 NJCAA Division I Men’s National Basketball Championships on Saturday afternoon in the Hutchinson Sports Arena. The Rangers posted a 3-2 record in the tournament, including a nail-biting 74-72 loss to Gillette (WY) College in the third-place matchup.

Despite the loss, Ranger College finished the season at 31-7 and made its first Final Four appearance in the institution’s 90-year history. The Rangers’ 29-game improvement over last season’s 2-23 finish marks the greatest turnaround in college basketball history.

In addition to qualifying for the Final Four, Ranger College had three players earn prestigious accolades for their play during the week-long event. Freshman point guard Chase Carlton was named the recipient of the 2016 Bud Obee Small Player Award, while freshmen Kris Clyburn and Josh Simmons were named to the all-tournament squad.

Simmons helped the Rangers offensively in their narrow loss to Gillette. He poured in 17 points. Carlton, a native of Austin, Texas, and Trey Conrod, a freshman from Kilgore, Texas, also starred. Carlton pushed in a game-high 19 points, including 15 of which via five three-point shots. Conrod added 16 points and a team-high eight boards.