The following is part nine in a summer series of some of the most memorable moments in Barton athletics.
It was March 7, 2000.
The Barton Community College women’s basketball team was trying to earn a trip to the NJCAA National Tournament – it would be the schools’ eighth but the first since 1992.
The task, however, would be a monumental one. Standing in the way was the No. 1 team in the country. The Seward County Saints entered the Region VI title game at 33-0 and a heavy favorite to win the region.
The two teams had met twice during the regular season and the Saints won both. Seward was the defending Region VI champion and finished fifth at the NJCAA tournament the previous year.
Much like the season before both the Barton men and women were having great seasons on the floor in the 1999-2000 campaign. Wendy Okeson returned as the leading scorer and rebounder for the Cougars her freshman season.
“We had a great year the year before and won the conference then got beat in semis,” then Barton coach Tony Hobson recalled. “We lost some really good sophomores but we had a real good in-state freshman class coming back with Wendy Okeson, Dena McMullen, Amy Werth, and Jara Coles.”
“Then we added two international kids and that gave us a boost. We got Tugba (Palazoglu) really late, it was August I think. I felt really good about our team. Of course we knew Seward was loaded coming back.”
By the Jayhawk ShootOut both teams were unbeaten. The men were 10-0 and had climbed to No. 2 in the country. The women were also 10-0 and ranked No. 9. Seward was already sitting atop the NJCAA poll.
The unbeaten streak reached 11-0 with a win over Neosho County to open the ShootOut in Coffeyville. That is where it stopped. A tough draw and a tough foe gave Barton its first loss.
The Cougars beat Neosho 100-68 in a 9 p.m. game Friday night. The team got to bed around 2 a.m. and storms rolled though at 5 a.m. Barton was back on the floor at 11 a.m. Saturday for its second game.
Unfortunately is was against a Cowley County team that was 10-0. Barton lost 74-66.
The Jayhawk Conference season opened with the No. 1 Saints coming to Great Bend. Barton had fallen to No. 24 in the polls.
The game pitted the nation’s highest scoring team in Seward (96 points per game) and the second highest scoring team in Barton (95 per game). Seward controlled the tempo and pounded the paint to win a low-scoring battle, 67-59.
It was Barton’s second loss in four games and dropped the Cougars to 13-2.
The men, meanwhile, continued to roll. The Cougar men rallied to beat Seward and moved to No. 1 in the country at 16-0 averaging 102 points per game.
The Cougar women breezed through the rest of the Jayhawk slate the first time through with ease. They did escape with a 60-56 win at the Power Plant against Butler but every other game was a double digit win.
By the time the Cougars made a return trip to Liberal Barton was 20-2 and had climbed to No. 12.
But it wasn’t much of a contest with the top ranked Saints. Seward went on a 13-0 run in the opening five minutes of the second half to open up a 25-point lead at the Green House. Barton never challenged and lost 78-54.
“We weren’t real strong inside, we had a 5-11 post and they were 6-5 and 6-2 so we got overpowered a bit down there,” Hobson said.
Much like the first time through the conference Barton was challenged only by Butler, a 72-70 win in Great Bend, as they rolled through the rest of the conference and finished the regular season with a 27-3 record.
In the regular season finale Okeson etched her name at the top of a pair of scoring lists. The sophomore poured in 42 points in a 77-51 win over Cloud County to set the single game scoring mark she had set the previous year at 39.
It also moved her past Kristen Crosby for the single season record with 614 points. Crosby, from Larned, had scored 607 points just two years prior. Okeson would have many more points to come, though. She had set the all-time scoring record a few games earlier.
The men lost their first game of the year in the regular season finale and took a 29-1 mark and No. 1 ranking into the post season.
Barton blew away Allen County to open the post season as Palazoglu scored 19 points in a 112-56 drubbing at the Barton Gym.
In the quarterfinals at the Bicentennial Center in Salina, the Cougars found themselves in trouble. Barton trailed by two points and Okeson was on the bench in foul trouble. But Palazoglu keyed an 18-4 run on her way to a career-high 26 points as Barton outlasted Coffeyville, 82-77.
That is where many thought the Cougars season would end.
Most considered Barton the fourth best team in the region despite its now 29-3 record. Seward (32-0) was widely considered the top team. Independence and Cowley were co-champs in the Jayhawk East.
Independence was ranked No. 10 and was 28-4. Cowley was ranked No. 11 and was 30-2.
Those four would battle in the semifinals.
Barton fell behind early and trailed 36-21 at one point against the Pirates in the first semifinal. The Cougars were able to cut that margin to 38-33 by half with an important 12-2 run to close out the first 20 minutes.
Indy led 63-56 with seven minutes to play.
It was at that point at the Bicentennial Center that things got a bit crazy that Monday afternoon. Okeson’s put back cut it to 63-60 and her trey tied it. Palazoglu hit a driving layup with 5:52 to play and Barton led 65-63.
By the time Okeson nailed another trey it was 70-63 and Barton was pulling away. The Cougars scored the final 24 points for a deceiving final of 80-63.
“Indy had six kids committed to play Division I,” Hobson said. “We like to press full court and it was one of those things where I think I had too much respect for them and we didn’t press them. We decided with about seven or eight minutes to play to go full court as hard as we can go. They didn’t score the rest of the game.”
Seward, meanwhile, was rolling through its foes, disposing of Cowley in the semifinals, 68-51.
The finals took place on a Tuesday night in Salina. By tip the Bicentennial Center was filling up. Nearly 3000 poured in for the title games.
Most coming that night figured a pair of No. 1 teams in the country would advance to the NJCAA tournaments. Seward was 33-0 as the No. 1 ranked women’s team. The Barton men were 32-1 and ranked No. 1 as well.
But from the opening tip it was obvious the Barton-Seward women’s game was not going to be like the first two.
“I really wanted another shot at them,” Hobson said. “I thought there were a couple of things we could do to give them trouble. With them 33-0 and No.1 in the country it was one of those games you go in with nothing to lose.”
The Cougars, fresh off a 24-0 run to end the semifinals, began with a 17-0 run in the title game against Seward as the Barton defense held Seward scoreless for 8:36 to start the game. Seward, averaging nearly 90 points a game, went 0-for-12 from the field and 0-for-4 from the free throw line in that stretch.
“They were able to break our press a couple times but missed some open 3’s,” Hobson said. “In pressure situations like that those shots aren’t as easy as they are in the regular season.”
After Barton built that 17-0 lead Seward fought back. The Saints held the Cougars to just six points the next eight minutes but Barton still led 23-13 late in the opening half. Barton led 29-18 at intermission.
Things got a little dicey for the Cougars early in the second half. With 16:29 left in the game, Okeson rolled her ankle. She would spend the next four minutes getting treatment.
“That was a bad one,” Hobson said of Okeson’s ankle sprain. “She hurt it pretty bad and she went into the locker room to have it re-taped. It was a case where they got excited and we got tentative.”
McMullen would pick up a fourth foul and with two starters on the bench, Seward came back. The Saints cut the lead to 34-28.
“When she came back on the floor and I saw her jogging it reminded me of Willis Reed,” Hobson said of Okeson’s return. “At least that is how I felt. Wendy jogging back on the floor – that’s a good thing.”
At that point Palazoglu knocked down a trey and Okeson returned to the court and did likewise. Suddenly it was 40-28 and Seward’s comeback was over.
The final four minutes was a free throw shooting contest for the Cougars. Barton hit 16-of-20 free throws during that time on the way to an easy 63-37 win.
Okeson ended the game with 17 points and 16 rebounds and was named the tournament MVP.
Meanwhile the Barton men suffered much the same fate as the Seward women. Independence, just 22-11, stunned the Cougar men by an 81-75 final to end the men’s storybook season short of expectations.
For Seward it would be the first of two straight seasons of heartbreak. The 2001 season saw the Saints again 33-0 heading into the Region VI title game only to be beaten by Cloud County. In 2002 Seward was yet again 33-0 heading into the finals. That season the Saints won the region and National Championship with a perfect 38-0 record.
Barton went on to the NJCAA tournament where the Cougars won their opener before losing in the quarterfinals to Northeastern Oklahoma. Barton would come through the back side of the bracket to win its final two games and finish 5th.
Despite the NJCAA tournament and the 5th place finish, that 2000 season would be remembered for that stunning win over Seward.
Hobson moved on after that season to his other alma mater, Hastings College in his home state of Nebraska as an assistant for a year knowing he would the head coach the following year. After a year at the University of Missouri, Okeson joined him and together they won an NAIA National Title.
Hobson won titles in 2002, 2003, and 2006 with the Broncos. He was 211-40 in his seven years at Hastings.
Hobson is now the coach at Fort Hays State where he has gone 102-67 in six years.
Palazoglu is still playing professionally in her home land of Turkey and is the starting point guard for the Turkey National team.
Seward’s coach that day, Jim Littell, is the head coach at Oklahoma State University.
“Other than the national championship games, and I have been lucky enough to be involved in three of them, the win over Seward is probably right under them,” Hobson said. “It was the biggest upset I’ve been involved in. Even though we had only lost three games it was an upset.”
“Then the fashion we did it in. It was convincing. It wasn’t like we won on a last second shot, we beat them pretty good. Our kids weren’t intimidated by the moment at all.”