A week ago, coming off a 30-point performance in an upset of then-No. 11 Fort Scott on the road, Labette sophomore guard Bryson Dennis made a proclamation.
“We’re the best team in the league,” Dennis said.
On Wednesday night, Dennis made good on his assessment. The Cardinals upset No. 8 Johnson County 73-66, their second upset of a ranked team in three games, to secure a share of the Kansas Jayhawk Conference title in the final game of the regular season.
Dennis scored a game-high 27 points, which included an 11-of-13 showing at the free throw line, to pace Labette. His sophomore backcourt mate, Ghage Kenan, added 21 points.
“We had two sophomore guards that decided they weren’t going to lose at home,” Labette head coach Jerrod Stanford said. “We didn’t lose a conference game at home in the regular season. We took care of business.”
Labette trailed by six points at halftime but came out firing from behind the arc in the second stanza. The Cardinals buried 9-of-13 shots from behind the arc, buoyed by a 6-of-7 mark from Kenan.
“They took good shots,” Stanford said. “They were on time, in rhythm. You can’t turn down good shots against a good, ranked team. We did that too much in the first half. In the second half, we played more aggressively with energy.”
Dennis has established himself as the glue guy for Labette. In addition to his 27 points in the win over Johnson County, he added five rebounds, four assists and three steals.
“That’s what he’s been,” Stanford said. “He was coming like this a year ago at this time. He stays in the moment. His threes weren’t falling early, so he kept driving to make plays at the rim.”
All of Kenan’s 21 points came in the second half while the third-year guard — Kenan missed all of last season due to injury — chipped in six boards and three dishes.
“Those 21 points came in the last 16 minutes,” Stanford said. “He got himself right after we had a conversation about expectations and he came with it.”
Devin Longstreet, who fouled out midway through the second half, provided another nice spark for the Cardinals with 15 points.
“He did a good job setting the tone and making some plays when we needed a bucket,” Stanford said. “At the end of the game, we like having four guards on the floor to break the press and shoot free throws. So we had guys in situations they weren’t used to being in. That’s good because now they’ve been in them and proved they could respond.”
Jaland Whitehead led the Cavaliers with 18 points.
Stanford also heaped praise onto big man Mohamad Diallo, who pulled down a game-high 15 rebounds.
“He was huge on the glass,” Stanford said. “He had seven offensive rebound and Johnson County only had six as a team. That was a sticking point for us.”
The Cardinals were picked to finish fourth in the KJCCC preseason poll. But thanks to Wednesday’s upset, coupled with a Fort Scott victory over Kansas City Kansas, Labette, Johnson County and Fort Scott all share the 2021 conference title.
“It’s pretty cool,” Stanford said. “I’m just proud of our guys. I’m so proud of them. We’ve got a lot of work left ahead of us to achieve the ultimate goal. But they’ve done a great job of never letting anything bother them.”
The three teams that will share the KJCCC title finished with a 5-3 record in conference play. Labette improved to 11-7 overall with the win while Johnson County dropped to 14-4 with the loss.
For Stanford, claiming a conference crown is just another iteration of a life that has converged into defining moments.
Stanford’s wife gave birth to the couple’s newest son, Raef, two weeks ago. He was born prematurely and has spent the last two weeks in a neonatal intensive care unit. Stanford has spent two weeks traversing between Joplin and Parsons as a result.
Labette has also had multiple games canceled as various teams in the conference paused their season due to COVID-19 protocols.
Then on Wednesday, the College Basketball Capital of America was Labette’s gym as three top-10 teams took the floor, including the No. 1 Johnson County women. The only unranked team, the Labette men, pulled off the upset and took a KJCCC title as its bounty.
“I’m proud of our staff, Coach (Jason) Hinson and all the extra stuff he’s taking on as I’m handling things,” Stanford said. “These guys know that when we’re here, we’re here. We’re proud of them. So proud. But none of us are done. Now it’s about being our best selves every single day to give ourselves an opportunity. I don’t care about who’s ranked and who’s not ranked. Our guys are prepared.”
Labette advances to the NJCAA Region VI Tournament as the top overall seed due to various tiebreakers and will face the winner of Kansas City Kansas and Highland on Wednesday at home in the semifinals.
Labette 73, No. 8 Johnson County 66
Labette: 21 52 — 73
Johnson County: 27 39 — 66
Labette: Ghage Kenan 21, Bryson Dennis 27, Pierce Thomas 2, Devin Longstreet 15, Mohamad Diallo 8
Johnson County: Jaycson Bereal 15, Bing Haung 14, Jaland Whitehead 18, Jacob Coleman 2, Desi Williams 15, Savonni Love 2