The Western Nebraska Community College women’s basketball team ran through the regular season with a 26-3 record and a perfect 13-0 mark at Cougar Palace and now the 21st-ranked Cougars will put everything on the line when they host the Region IX tournament Thursday through Saturday at Cougar Palace.
WNCC opens tournament play at 8 p.m. Thursday when they face Sheridan College. Other first round games in the tournament will pit Northeastern Junior College against Laramie County Community College at 1 p.m., Eastern Wyoming College against McCook Community College at 3 p.m., and Casper College against Otero Junior College at 6 p.m. The winners advance to Friday’s semifinals.
WNCC and Casper each earned the No. 1 seed from their sub-regions. But, like any tournament, records mean very little when it comes to tournament time. Everyone is back to 0-0. WNCC head coach Chad Gibney said for his team to win its second regional tournament in three years, they just need to go one day at a time.
“We just have to take it one day at a time, play good, solid fundamental basketball,” third-year Cougar coach Gibney said. “We have to move the basketball, be unselfish, compete really hard on the defensive end, rebound like our heads on fire. If we do those things and play our style, we have a good opportunity to advance.”
The Cougars, who won the South with a 10-0 record and had a first-round bye into the quarterfinals, open up against Sheridan College, a team that Gibney said will be tough.
WNCC and Sheridan played once this season with the Cougars taking an 82-60 win over the Generals in the final game before Christmas break.
Gibney said that Sheridan is a good team that provides some problems for his squad.
“Sheridan is a very talented team,” he said. “They have a handful of weapons that make them tough to defend. We are going to try to do everything we can to minimize their strengths and hopefully play our style and dictate the game.”
The last time the two played, Sheridan had two players finish in double figures in Kassie Hoyer with 20 points and Lani Taliauli with 19.
In the first game between the two teams in December, Sheridan connected on three treys while WNCC had 14. WNCC was led in scoring by Tishara Morehouse with 24.
That win was one of 26 on the season for the Cougar women. WNCC has won 20 or more games in a season for 32 straight seasons.
Gibney said this team had a great regular season.
“We have had an unbelievable regular season so far,” Gibney said. “It is an extremely connected group that game together and did a fantastic job of sharing the ball. They are fabulous young ladies that compete really hard and unselfish. I couldn’t say enough about this group.”
WNCC’s bread and butter is their high-scoring offense, where they are averaging 91 points a game. The Cougars are also holding their opponents to 58.6 points a game. WNCC has scored over the century mark 10 times this season.
The Cougars, who are second in the nation in 3-point shooting, have a plethora of weapons on defense. WNCC has connected on 338 3-pointers this season. Merle Wiehl has buried 104 treys this season, while Taylor Joplin has made 57, Morehouse with 50, and Allysah Boothe with 47.
WNCC has three players averaging in double figures. Wiehl, who owns the school record for most points in her career with 1,234 and season points with 666, is second in the nation averaging 23.3 points a game. Wiehl has scored in double figures in all 29 games this season and has a consecutive streak of 51 straight games spanning two seasons.
Also scoring in double digits is Morehouse at 14.8 points and Taylor Joplin at 12.8. Three Cougars are at eight points a game in Yuliyana Valcheva at 8.4, R’Manie Pulling at 8.2 and Boothe at eight points.
While the offense is high scoring, the defense is also good. WNCC is holding its opponents to 35 percent shooting from the field and 27 percent from beyond the arc.
The Cougars are the favorite to win regionals, but the other teams are just as dangerous. WNCC has a chance to make the national tournament for a third straight year. WNCC won regionals in 2017 by playing strong defense in the final 20 seconds to escape Eastern Wyoming 53-51 for the regional title.
WNCC then earned an at-large bid last year after falling to Casper in the finals 75-65.
The Cougars have won 13 Region IX women’s basketball championships, the first coming in 1993. WNCC has finished runner-up nine times, the first time in 1991. That makes the Cougars playing in the championship game 22 times in the past 28 years.
Gibney said it will be a big honor for this team if they can make the national tournament for a third straight season in Lubbock, Texas, March 18-23.
“If we able to get that job done, that is an amazing accomplishment,” Gibney said. “That a lot of schools are able to say that, so that is the goal. This team is different from last year’s team and different from the year before that. We just want to play really good basketball and do everything we can to give ourselves a chance.”
The championship is slated for Saturday at 5 p.m. The national tournament pairings will be unveiled on Monday, March 11.
NOTES: Admission prices for the women’s regional tournament are Adults $8, senior citizens $6, students $4, children 6-under free, and a tournament pass, good for three days, $20. … Individuals that have a WNCC all-sport pass, the cost is $5 when you show the pass.