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WNCC wins Region IX championship
 March 8, 2013

Region IX Champions.

                How sweet those words are for the members of the 22-ranked Western Nebraska Community College women’s basketball team.

                The Cougar women, who captured their 20th win of the season and battled through adversity all season, battled down to the wire against a good Gillette College team, in posting a 62-54 win over the No. 25 Pronghorns Thursday night in the Region IX championship at Cougar Palace.

                The win sends the Cougars to the NJCAA national tournament for the 10th time in school history March 18-23 in Salina, Kan.

                And, for the players, winning the regional title is gratification and a dream come true.

                “At the beginning of the year, I didn’t expect this but is so exciting now,” Mikayla Brower of Torrington, Wyo., said. “This team is awesome and it is so exciting.”

                Gritt Ryder, who finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds on the night, said all the hard work the team has gone through from the first week of school in the fall has paid off.

                “This championship is awesome,” the future Colorado State University basketball player said. “All the hard work that we have done all season, including the preseason with running and the morning runs, all comes together now to get this championship.”

                When that final horn sounded, the entire Cougar team stormed the court. Ryder said that was when the championship really sunk in.

                “It was like relieve, I guess,” Ryder said. “This whole group has been working all year and this is unbelievable that it is actually happening now.”

                The Cougars earned an automatic berth into the 24-team tournament. Gillette still has an opportunity to get to nationals as maybe one of four at-large teams.

                This game was a battle between two champions as neither team wanted to give an inch in the second half. In fact, the players said this is the type of contest they needed heading into nationals.

                “With this game, it came down to the end and it showed that we have the toughness to finish a game,” Brower said. “That is what we need to be able to do at nationals.”

                Ryder said the showed a lot of heart to pull out this win.

                “We really haven’t that many close games so I think it was important to have a close game before nationals,” she said. “This game was perfect. It is how a championship game is supposed to be won. The crowd was amazing and thanks to all the people that came out.”

                This was a heart-wrenching contest. The first half saw the Cougars go on a 13-0 run to open up a 13-13 tie to lead 26-23. The run was highlighted by 3-pointers by Laurin Rivera and Shalisa Moffit and a big steal by Maurissa Ortega. WNCC would lead 32-23 at the half.

                The second half was a battle. WNCC led the majority of the first 10 minutes by five points, but Gillette came back to take a 46-44 lead on a bucket by Kiela Garner with 9:26 to play. WNCC answered on two free throws by Ashley Stevens and then took a 48-46 lead on a bucket by Brower.

                Gillette tied the contest once again at 48-48, but that is when Ryder heated up from outside, hitting three straight 3-pointers to put the Cougars up 57-52 with two minutes to play.

                Gillette sliced the lead to lead to three points, but clutch free throw shooting by Rivera, Brower and Jessica Aratani sealed the win.

                Brower, who was named to the South All-Region team, said the they needed everyone to get this win.

                “Our team did a great job and we did what we needed to do in order to pull this one out,” she said. “I am sure coach will push us hard this week to get us ready for nationals. He knows what it is like to be there, but none of us have any experience down there.”

                Ryder said that first half, 13-0 run paid off down the stretch.

                “It was a team effort win and that is what makes this team so important,” she said. “It is not about one or two people, it is about everyone and that is what we showed tonight. When we come out with a lot of energy, no one can really stop us and we did that tonight again.”

                The Cougars had just two players in double digits. Ryder finished with 20 points, but Ashley Stevens finished with 12 points, eight of which came in the second half.

                WNCC also connected on seven 3-pointers. Ryder connected on four treys on the night. Rebounding was also huge for the Cougars as they out-rebounded the Pronghorns 37-34.

                Gillette was led in scoring by Kenosha Wright with 21 points and eight rebounds, while Christina Davis and Kiela Garner had 10 points each.

                Three WNCC and Gillette players made the all-tournament team. The Cougars earning a spot include Ryder, Stevens, and Aratani, while Pronghorns making the team include Kenosha Wright, Kiela Garner, and Christina Davis.

                Other members of the all-tournament team include Cheyanne Balster of Casper, Emily Smith of Central Wyoming, Akia Davis and Shelby Hemmann of McCook, Ivana Grbic of Miles, Andressa Augusto and Kennedy Allen of Northwest, Milomilo Nanai of Sheridan, and Emily Moore of Western Wyoming.

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