Cougars set to host Region IX Tourney

It has been five years since the Western Nebraska Community College women's basketball team has captured a Region IX championship.

The No. 22 Cougars will hope to ride that hot shooting through the Region IX tournament that begins Sunday at Cougar Palace. WNCC, who is 14-1 in the second semester, opens tournament play Sunday at 7 p.m. against Little Big Horn College.

Other first-round contests on Sunday finds Dawson against Sheridan at 1 p.m., Eastern Wyoming against Miles at 3 p.m., and Western Wyoming taking on Trinidad State at 5 p.m.

First-round action continues on Monday with Otero meeting Northwest Wyoming at 1 p.m., Gillette taking on Northeastern Junior College at 3 p.m., McCook facing Central Wyoming at 5 p.m., and Casper facing Lamar at 7 p.m.

Quarter-finals are slated for Tuesday, semi-finals on Wednesday, and the championship for a 6 p.m. tip-off on Thursday. The winner advances to the NJCAA national tournament March 18-23 in Salina, Kan.

WNCC freshman Mikayla Brower said winning another regional title would be very special to this team. The last time WNCC won a championship was 2008.

"Winning a championship would be also be nice especially what happened to us early in the season," Brower, a Torrington, Wyo., graduate, said. "I think it would be a huge deal especially since it is on our home court and it would be super exciting to get another one for Coach Harnish because he works so hard for us."

The Cougars enter the tournament as one of the favorites. Sheridan College is the other number one seed in the tournament, while Eastern Wyoming College and Western Wyoming Community College garnered number two seeds.

For WNCC to come away with a regional title, they need to play together as a team. That shouldn't be too difficult considering they have been doing that all season. Wednesday night against Northwest Kansas Technical College in which they won 79-46, the Cougars played one of their best contests.

Brower said they need to continue playing like that come Sunday.

"How we played against Northwest gives us confidence, especially going into the regional tournament," she said. "Hopefully we can keep on that streak and play like we did last night. We just need to stay focused and do what Coach Harnish tells us to do. He says we need to rebound, box out, stay focused, and play like we know how."

A big reason for the team's success is their shooting. Wednesday night a plethora of players finished with around double-digit scoring. But, what really stands out with this year's team is their 3-point shooting, where the Cougars are seventh with a 38.3 percent average. WNCC has already connected on 210 of 548 3-point shots.

Individually, Brower is sizzling from beyond the arc. The 5-foot-8 guard, who wasn't known for a long-range threat in high school, is leading the nation at 57.7 in 3-point shooting. Brower has connected on 45 treys this season.

Brower never expected to be leading the nation, but credits her success to the team.

"I never expected it or even tried [to lead the nation," she said. "In high school, I wasn't really a 3-point shooter so I was surprised this year. It is just the other players driving and giving me the opportunity by kicking the ball out to me. I also don't try to force anything and if it isn't there, I look for someone else that is open and they will have a better shot."

Brower's best contests shooting the long ball have come in the month. In the last month, she has made 23 of 33. She had five treys each on the road against Northeastern Junior College on Jan. 29 and then Feb. 21 at Eastern Wyoming College. She also hit for four 3-pointers against Lamar.

Brower said that this team has plenty of good shooters and that is what makes this team dangerous.

"That is the way championship teams are built because if one person isn't hitting, the whole team doesn't go down," she said. "Everybody can hold their own weight, when it comes to scoring. You never know who is going to be the top scorer on the night. We just practice shooting a lot, we get the good passes, and take our shots wisely. We all can hit them [baskets]."

A lot of the Cougars' scoring, however, is generated by their defense. The Cougars are giving up 44.7 points a game. The team also loves to share the ball, where they rank 11th in the country in dishing out 18.5 assists a game.

Brower said everything they do comes down to hard work on the court, whether it is in the game or in practice.

"I would say what has made this team succeed is our unselfishness," she said. "We are all willing to sacrifice for the better of the team. Whatever it takes, we will do that. We all go in and shoot and work hard during practice and I think that is what it takes to be how we are."

Brower, who came from a Torrington High School team that has competed at state the past couple of years, has been pleasantly surprised by this remarkable season, despite all the adversity they have gone through.

"At the beginning of the season I didn't know what to expect and we didn't even think about hosting regionals. Now that has become a reality," she said. "We really don't count the record right know. That [16-14] is the record but in our minds we won those 13 games."

NOTES: Ticket prices for the regional tournament are $25 for a tournament pass. Individual day passes are $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens, $4 for students, and children under the age of six free. Â… The NJCAA tournament has been expanded to 24 teams with the 16 regional/district winners advancing, along with the second place teams from Regions 5, 11, 16 and 24. Four at-large teams will then be selected by a committee to fill out the 24-team field.

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