The Western Nebraska Community College men’s basketball team is having one of their best seasons in the last five years and the Cougars are hoping to keep that momentum going entering the quarterfinals of the Region IX Tournament in Gillette, Wyoming, on Thursday.
WNCC, 21-10, earned a trip to the quarterfinals with a 93-74 win over Northeastern Junior College at Cougar Palace on Saturday in the first round. Saturday’s win moves the Cougars into a 5 p.m. quarterfinal game against Casper College. Casper earned a first-round win over Western Wyoming Community College 84-49.
Vinnie Shahid, who leads the team at 15 points a game, said the team is ready for the quarterfinal contest.
“It is the last regional tournament for them and I think they are ready to go,” the freshman from Minneapolis, Minnesota said.
Other quarterfinal contests in the men’s regional tournament will have Lamar facing Central Wyoming at 1 p.m., Laramie County taking on Sheridan at 3 p.m., and Gillette facing Otero at 7 p.m. The winners will advance to Friday’s semifinals with the championship slated for 7 p.m. on Saturday. The WNCC/Casper winner will face the Gillette/Otero winner.
WNCC and Casper have faced each other twice this season with the Thunderbirds winning both, 69-58 in November at Casper and then 82-74 at Cougar Palace in January. Shahid said they know what they need to do to stop Casper.
“We know they have a couple key guys that we have to contain a little more,” he said. “We know they are bigger than us size-wise. We really have to defend and rebound and that is how we have to win the game. The offense will take care of itself like it always does. We just have to really defense and rebound to pull this one out.”
Rebounding and playing tough defense will be key. WNCC led on the glass by Jeremy Ruffin’s 6.4 boards a game followed by Marlon Sierra’s 4.2. Shahid and RJ Palmer are next at 3.4.
Depth in scoring is also huge. Shahid said anyone can score 20 points any night. To show the depth, five Cougars are in double figures. Shahid is at 15 points followed by Djodje Dimitrijevic at 13.8, and Trent Harris, Michael Connor, Jr., and Palmer at 10 points a game.
“I think any guy, one through 13, can go out and score 20 any night,” he said. “That is why we are so dangerous. We are also a very unselfish team and that is huge. That even makes it better.”
WNCC has shown signs of a championship team all season as they put together a run late to capture the number two seed from the South. That late season run saw the Cougars top South No. 1 LCCC 83-63 as well as topping Lamar Community College in January 71-69.
Shahid said this team has all the makings to go far.
“The key for us this season was trust and commitment,” he said. “Trusting the process, trusting coach Cory [Fehringer], and being committed to each other and committed to the team, committed to playing to each possession each time, and trusting each other. We really trust each other and I would say that is how we became the team we are today.”
Last year, WNCC won the opener against Laramie County 80-79 before falling in the quarterfinals to Casper College 89-69. The Cougars enter the regional tournament with hopes of capturing their first regional title since 2003, the year that they ended up forfeiting the title after the national tournament. Before that, the Cougars won the title in 2001 with just seven players.
Shahid said it will mean for WNCC see the regional tournament once again.
“It would mean the world,” he said. “If we can put away these three wins and come home with a Region IX title, but we want to take it one game at a time. We want to get Casper first and then move on to the next round.”
All tournament games will be available via webcast at www.gcpronghorns.com. The winner advances to the NJCAA national tournament March 20-25 in Hutchinson, Kansas.