Mar 9, 2017 - By Scott Akanewich, Sports EditorCentral Wyoming College continues postseason play at the Region IX tournament in Gillette.
The Rustlers of Central Wyoming College will continue their quest for a berth in the National Collegiate Athletics Association national tournament on Thursday with a second-round Region IX game against Lamar Community College in Gillette.
Central punched a ticket to face the Runnin' Lopes with an 85-76 home victory Saturday against Miles Community College.
Lamar defeated Trinidad State Junior College by a final of 74-65 in their opening-round matchup.
The Lopes are 25-6 on the season and finished second in Region IX South during the conference campaign with an 11-5 mark.
The Rustlers (21-8) also finished second in Region IX North, at 11-3.
At the tip of Central's offensive spear will be Irshaad Hunte, who led the Rustlers in scoring with 16 points per game and rebounding, ripping down 7.8 boards.
Hunte was in fine form against the Pioneers, posting a double-double, with 23 points and 10 rebounds, for his eighth such effort of the season.
According to Central head coach Jack Nelson, Hunte has been the team's talisman all season.
"Irshaad has been a major factor in our success all year long," said Nelson. "He continues to work and improve all the time, which is why he's a special player."
However, although Hunte is atop the scoring charts, the big Canadian is by no means the only weapon in the Rustlers' arsenal.
Alihan Demir (14 points per game), Devon Colley (10.6) and Chris Quayle (10.3) have also averaged double-digit scoring, with Marcus Nolan (9.8) and Nick Brannon (9.4) right behind.
Balanced scoring has been a hallmark of Nelson's club, with that trend continuing in the game against Miles, said Nelson.
"Our unselfishness and willingness to share the ball has been a major strength of ours all season long," he said. "These guys love to play together, and I don't expect that to change."
For Lamar, the danger man is Wayne Stewart, who was the Lopes' leading scorer, pouring in 19 points per game, but only one other Lamar player averaged in doubles, Michael Skinner, at 12.7.
Against Miles, the Rustlers took advantage of a distinct size advantage down low, along with the Pioneers' insistence on employing a zone defense in all three games the clubs faced each other this season, resulting in more second chances and points in the paint, said Nelson.
"It was a major factor," he said. "All three times we've played Miles, that has been a big key for us. They play zone the entire game, and our ability to score around the basket helped us win all three of those games."
Central was up by 10 points at the half, at 45-35, but the Pioneers found a lifeline in the second stanza and not only closed the gap, but briefly took the lead at 55-54 midway through the second 20 minutes.
Unacceptable as far as Nelson was concerned.
"It was a combination of them having a couple very talented scorers, and also I thought our defensive intensity slipped below what we're capable of," said Nelson. "We've had fewer of those moments as the year has gone on, but we have to keep learning and prevent them from happening as much as possible."
Nelson's squad managed to weather the Pioneers' storm, but no such quarter will given against Lamar, which is as good as any side Central has faced this season, averaging 85.4 points.
Only one school is afforded the chance to host the Region IX tournament and although his squad fell short of that benchmark, the runner-up finish ensured a home game at Rustler Gym in the opener.
"It was a goal of ours all season for us to host the regional tournament," said Nelson. "For that to happen, we obviously would have to win the region, which didn't happen, but it was still great to play at home for one of those games. To win in the playoffs is always special and I'm excited for our guys to have the opportunity to go play in the regional tournament this weekend."
Other Region IX quarterfinal games on Thursday include Laramie County Community College (21-10) against Sheridan College (23-8), Western Nebraska Community College (20-10) facing Casper College (23-8) and Gillette College (28-3) hosting Otero Junior College (20-8).
Semifinals are scheduled for Friday, with the championship final on Saturday at 7 p.m.
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