Bronchos Get Playoff Buzz

Freshman guard Jo’Nah Johnson, No. 23, drives the ball against Jacee Kramer, No. 22, in a game against Emporia State University on Feb. 24. (Gerald Leong/The Vista)

A late game run by Emporia State University on Saturday at Hamilton Field house nearly ruined senior night for the University of Central Oklahoma.
On a night where seniors Jesheon Cooper and Melinda Murillo were being honored, the Emporia State Hornets battled all the way back from a 22-point fourth quarter deficit. However, the Bronchos held on late to win 87-86, producing a final season record of 22-6 for UCO.
“Just almost everything we did at the end was poor,” said UCO Head Coach Guy Hardaker. “Luckily we had a big enough lead we could do that.”

The Bronchos began the fourth quarter with a 16-point lead. Eventually their lead was pushed to 22 points off a layup from Murillo with just over four minutes left in the game. However, this was UCO’s last made field goal and the Hornets went on an 18-1 run, led by 6-foot junior forward Tyra Jones, to cut the lead to four. Jones scored 10 fourth quarter points for Emporia State by going 8 of 9 from the free-throw line.
“At the 4 minute mark we shot a couple first pass shots,” Hardaker said. “That’s not very smart, especially when you have time and possession in your favor. We [also] kept stopping the clock by fouling, hopefully [we] learn from that.”
With 22 seconds left, Madison Lee hit two free-throws, giving the Bronchos an 87-81 lead. After stealing a pass from the Hornets, Cooper was fouled with 9.5 seconds left with a chance to put the game out of reach at the line. Cooper missed both free throws and Murillo then fouled Emily Miller on a drive to the hoop with 4.9 seconds left.
Miller made both free throws, cutting the lead to four, 87-83. After another pair of missed free-throws by UCO, Hornets guard Miller made a 3-pointer at the buzzer, falling just one point shy of the Bronchos.
“I don’t know how many times in games where we’ve been in the same boat [as Emporia State] thinking ‘man if we had 2 more minutes we were going to win’,” Hardaker said. “But there was a reason we were in that situation. It should have been a 15-point game, but we gave them a chance and it was our own fault.”

UCO’s seniors both scored in double figures on their night. Murillo scored 22 points, while Cooper finished with 14. In her time as a Broncho, Murillo earned First Team All-MIAA honors in 2017, UCO’s first. Cooper holds school records for most blocks in a single game (nine), blocks in a single season (100) and blocks in a career (181).
“Next to my wife and my mom, those are two of the best women I know,” Hardaker said. “I’m going to miss them. They are two of the best seniors to play for me here, and I’ve had some good ones, but they are as good as anybody that has played here.”
With the win Saturday, the Bronchos secured their first ever first round bye in the MIAA playoffs after being in the league for six years.
“It’s big, [as a coach] I’ve never done that,” Hardaker said. “This is about the sixth or seventh year we’ve been in the league and I’ve tied for fourth, but I’ve always finished fifth or sixth. But this one can’t be taken away from us, we are in fourth position.”
The Bronchos will play the winner of 5th-seeded Nebraska-Kearney and 12th-seeded Missouri Western on Thursday night at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.
“We’ve had a fantastic regular season,” Hardaker said. “We’ve won 20 games and almost all of my teams who have won 20 games have made it to the NCAA tournament somehow.”

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