Eight of the top Region IX women’s basketball teams will make their way to Western Nebraska Community College beginning Thursday for the Region IX tournament with one goal in mind, to earn a berth at the NJCAA national tournament in Lubbock, Texas.
For the 24th-ranked WNCC women, that goal begins late Thursday when they tangle with Northwest College, who upset Casper College 70-69 in overtime in the first round last week. Tip-off for the Cougar’s quarterfinal match is set for 8 p.m.
Other quarterfinal matches at WNCC Thursday pits Trinidad State against Miles at 1 p.m., Gillette College taking on Otero Junior College at 3 p.m., and Western Wyoming Community College battling Eastern Wyoming College at 6 p.m.
The winners advance to Friday’s semifinals with the championship slated for 5 p.m. on Saturday.
The WNCC women enter with a 25-4 record and a 13-game winning streak. Western Wyoming also enters the contest on a roll, coming in at 24-5 and an 11-game winning streak. The two squads, who could face each other for the championship, have met once this season in December with the Mustangs coming out with a 58-51 win.
Olivia Wiberg, a freshman from Hyrum, Utah, said her team knows how important this tournament is and are ready to go.
“I definitely think we are ready to go,” Wiberg said. “This past week we definitely have been preparing for regionals and our coaches wanted to see a lot of consistency in our practices. We definitely seen a lot of that in our last practices.”
WNCC’s road, however, won’t be easy. The Cougars open against Northwest, a team that the Cougars beat back in December 93-59. The Trappers enter with a 14-17 record but have talent after upending Casper last week in overtime.
Wiberg said all eyes are on Northwest.
“Our team has been saying that we know they [Northwest] has been working also and they are getting better,” Wiberg said. “So we definitely can’t come out and say this is a walk in the park. We can’t under estimate any opponent that we take on even if we played them before. We just need to come out strong and play Cougar basketball.”
WNCC has quietly put together another 20-win season, their 30th straight. Wiberg attributes their success to the 25-win season to hard work.
“I think we have improved a lot from the start,” she said. “It comes with a lot of practice with each other, getting comfortable with each other, and learning to play the game with each other. We have had so much time together playing that I think we are stronger.”
The one thing that stands out about the Cougars is how they find ways to win. At times, the Cougars haven’t looked sharp, but Wiberg said this team never gives up and fights to the end.
“I think that fighting is a key thing and what can take us all the way in regionals,” she said. “Even if we start out bad in a game or something like that, we know what it takes to come together and get the final product, which is to win and we all want to win.”
Not only has WNCC fights back in games, they also had to fight through plenty of adversity, having gone through coaching changes as well as injuries. Chad Gidney is the interim head coach after Dave Harnish stepped down. Wiberg said they have accepted the changes and have dealt with the injuries which have made them a better team by sticking together.
“I think with all the changes we had, we had to become stronger and rely on each other more as a team and become one,” she said. “That is something that helped us grow closer together and become better as a team.”
What has made the Cougars click this season is their depth. WNCC has five players averaging over double figures scoring and three more putting in seven or more points a game. Sladjana Rakovic, who has missed the past two weeks because of an injury, leads the way at 14.7 points a game. Rakovic is also averaging 6.3 rebounds a game.
Rakovic, who inked with the University of Wyoming in November, will be ready to play at regionals.
Jaleesa Avery and sophomore Bree Paulson are also scoring at double-digit clips. Jaleesa Avery is averaging 12. 8 points a game, while pulling down 4.4 rebounds a game. Paulson is averaging 10.6 points and 3.2 rebounds a game.
Also contributing plenty of points are Zeynep Canbaz at 9.4 points followed by Melisa Kadic at 8.1 and Anastacia Johnson at 7.1 points.
Shooting has been the Cougars ingredient for success. The Cougars have went through spells of not shooting well, but when they do, they become deadly. WNCC is shooting 65 percent from the free throw line and 33 percent from the 3-point arc. WNCC has six players that have made double-figure 3-pointers this season, led by Paulson with 40 treys.
Kadic has connected on 37 3-pointers followed by Canbaz with 26, Wiberg with 16, Avery with 15, and Johnson with 13.
“That, the capability of anyone scoring, is what keeps our team fighting to the end in that we don’t have to rely on one person to score,” Wiberg said. “If someone is having an off night we know the next person can step up and get it done. We rely on each other as a team and not just one person getting the job done.”
Another team to watch for at the regional tournament is Eastern Wyoming College, The Lancers enter the tournament with a 20-11 record and won six straight in February before falling to WNCC in the last regular season game of the season.
EWC earned a berth in the quarterfinals after dropping Lamar Community College 69-59 on Saturday in the first round.
The Lancers are led by three players that are averaging 14 points a game. Anna Perez-Gomez is averaging 14.5 points followed closely behind by Emily Evans at 14.2 points and Sarah Bersang at 14. Bersang, who missed 11 games in the first semester, is one of the top free throw shooters on the team, having made 103 shots in just 24 games. Perez-Gomez leads the team with 104 makes.
What makes the Lancers dangerous is their 3-point shooting, where they are averaging 33.5 per game. Evans has already connected on 80 3-pointers followed by 35 from Carna Prokic.
EWC and Western Wyoming have met just once this season, back in December when the Mustangs registered an 81-51 win.
The winner of Western Wyoming and EWC game will face the winner of Trinidad and Miles at 5 p.m. Friday, while the WNCC/Northwest winner faces the Otero/Gillette winner at 7 p.m.
NOTES: All the games will be video webcast at The Cube at http://thecube.com/cube/wncc_