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WNCC reaches finals with win over McCook, will face Gillette on Thursday for Region IX title
 March 7, 2013

It’s been five years since the Western Nebraska Community College women’s basketball team has won a regional title and the Cougars are one win away from capturing their 10th regional championship.

                The 22nd-ranked Cougars accomplished that feat with another stellar first-half offensive and defensive output in dropping McCook Community College 89-72 Wednesday night in the semifinals of the Region IX Tournament at Cougar Palace.

                WNCC will battle Gillette College for the championship at 6 p.m. Thursday at Cougar Palace with the winner advancing to the national tournament March 18-23 in Salina, Kan. Gillette earned the berth in the title game with a dramatic 81-74 overtime victory over Northwest Wyoming.

                As for the Cougars, Morrill’s Jessica Aratani said the team is excited to be playing for a title, but they realize that they have to be ready to play, just like they did in the first three games of the tournament.

                “Everyone is happy right now and this is what we have been working for a year and is feels nice to be in this position and to have this opportunity to get a Region IX championship and make the most out of it,” Aratani, who last won a championship in her senior year at Morrill two years ago. “Tomorrow, we just have to stick to what we came from all year and that is our defense. Our defense drives us to do well on offense. Gillette is athletic but if we stick to our fundamentals and play we well, we will be fine.”

                A big key for the Cougars on the night was shooting. Once again, the Cougars shot over 50 percent for the game, finishing at 51 percent. WNCC also buried nine 3-pointers, four of which came from a hot-handed Shalisa Moffit who rang in four treys, while Mikayla Brower and Kelsey Doddridge each had two.

                While the 3-point shots were raining in, it was the inside game that proved beneficial, where the Cougars drove to the bucket a number of times for buckets and got huge rebounds for putbacks. Ashley Stevens was the big muscle inside pulling down a game-high 10 boards

                “Our 3-point shooting has been phenomenal all year,” she said. “Sometimes it is easy for us to rely on that, but Coach [Dave] Harnish has been preaching to us to get it inside because it is better to work inside out for us. I think we have a pretty strong inside game with Ashley and everyone. It has been working a lot better for us.”

                And, for a third straight game, the Cougars started strong in the first half and that, Aratani said, is a major factor in the team’s success.

                “If we come out strong in the first half, we usually feed off of that and it carries on into the second half,” she said. “That first five minutes of the second half is always key for us, too.

                WNCC opened the contest on an 8-0 run and led 13-3 on a Brower 3-pointer. WNCC kept it’s hot shooting alive as Doddridge and Moffit had back-to-back 3-pointers. In fact Moffit had three straight 3-pointers to help WNCC to a 30-11 lead which expanded to 20 at halftime, 41-21.

                The closest McCook got in the second half was 12 points at 73-61. After that, Gritt Ryder scored five straight points and Doddridge hit a clutch trey to push the contest to 83-67.

                The Cougars had five players in double figures. Aratani led the way with 20 points and six rebounds, while Stevens finished with a double-double of 13 points and 10 rebounds. Also hitting the double-digit mark were Moffit and Brower with 14 points each, and Ryder with 11 points, nine of which came in the second half.

                McCook was led in scoring by Akia Davis with 19 points, while Mikaila Newton and Shelby Hemmann each had 11 points.

                In the earlier game, the Pronghorns held a slim 38-37 lead at halftime. Gillette trailed by two points with a minute to play on a bucket by Northwest’s Kennedy Allen with a minute to play. Kenosha Wright then hit two free throws with 26.6 seconds to play to tie the game at 66-66 to force overtime.

                In the extra period, Gillette took the lead for good at 70-68 on two Wright free throws and 74-70. Northwest cut the lead to 74-72 on a bucket by Leslie Blackburn, but the Pronghorns went on a 6-0 run to seal their berth in the title game.

                Wright led the Pronghorns with a double-double of 23 points and 10 rebounds. Alicia Carline also had a double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds.

                Andressa Augusto led Northwest with 19 points.

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