LA JUNTA, Colo. – Djordje Dimitrijevic poured in 30 points and the Western Nebraska Community College men's basketball moved one game from a Region IX title after stopping Sheridan College 99-87 in the Region IX tournament semifinals Friday evening at La Junta, Colorado.
WNCC, 25-7 on the season, will play Otero Junior College Saturday at 7 p.m. for the automatic berth in the national tournament March 19-24 in Hutchinson, Kansas. The Cougars are making their first trip to the title game since 2003. Otero earned a spot in the title game with a 79-66 win over Trinidad State Junior College.
WNCC men's coach Cory Fehringer said this team played hard and bought into the system to get a chance to play for a regional title.
"For the team, I think it is just a testament for the consistency and the commitment of the sophomores as well as the freshmen beginning to understand the culture and day-to-day habits," Fehringer said. "As far as the program, we are still thankful that we get to put on their uniform and play for Western Nebraska and for the community of Scottsbluff because this is what they deserve: a team that is willing to play hard nightly, to be unselfish, and do the best job we could do regardless of the outcome. I think the community appreciates that."
The contest was a battle. Sheridan won the North and entered the regional tournament ranked 16th in the nation. Fehringer gives a lot of credit to the win to the players.
"They won a semifinal game against Sheridan, who won the North and it was a difficult game before the ball even went in the air," Fehringer said. "I think the resiliency they have shown all year and the ability to handle tough situations and create tough circumstances for their opponent really was put on display tonight."
Dimitrijevic, who had the hot hand Friday night a day after Jervay Green had the hot hand on Thursday in a win over Central Wyoming, said they always battled back, especially haver tailing 40-35 in the first half.
"I think we played really well today," the sophomore from Serbia said. "Sometimes our energy was low and they took the lead for a moment but then we brought our energy back, pressured full court, and we got the W today."
Trailing by five, the Cougars tied the game at 44 and then took a 47-46 halftime lead after a 3-pointer.
WNCC came out with plenty of energy in the second half, outscoring the Generals 52-41. WNCC held a slim 59-55 lead and that was when the Cougars put the game out of reach, going on a 13-0 run to plead 72-55 pm a Dimitrijevic trey.
Sheridan tried coming back, slicing the lead to 84-79 and trailed 87-83 late, but WNCC went on a 10-0 run behind a 3-poinger by Vinnie Shahid and back to buckets by Dimitrijevic for a 97-83 lead.
Dimitrijevic said the difference between the first and second half was making shos.
"The difference was making shots," he said. "We weren't playing defense in the first half and we didn't make as many shots. We were open; we just didn't hit. The second half our defense was good and we found the open man in the offense."
WNCC shot 43 percent from the field while burying 16 3-pointers. Sheridan was 50 percent from the field and made 10 treys. WNCC had at least 3-pointer from all eight players that played Friday night. Dimitrijevic buried four treys, while Martin Roub and Jervay Green each had three. Vinnie Shahid had two, while Marlon Sierra, Trent Harris, Bryce Sanchious, and Marko Rajanovic each had one.
Another big key in the game was turnovers. WNCC's defense force 18 Sheridan turnovers while WNCC only turned the ball over eight times.
The Cougars had three players in double figures. Dimitrijevic led all scorers with 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. Roub tallied 17 points, while Shahid had 16, and Green 14 points.
Marlon Sierra had a near double-double, finishing with nine points and 10 rebounds. Sierra also dished off five assists to lead the team.
WNCC will now face Otero in the championship. Dimitrijevic said they have to keep playing strong, just like they did the last two days.
"We have to defend and rebound and everything else will take care of itself," he said. "It feels great to be playing for a title. We worked hard all year and we knew we could go to the championship and win it. We lost a couple games during the year but then we came back and we are ready to play our best basketball in March."
Sheridan 46 41 – 87
WNCC (25-7) 47 52 – 99
Camron Reece 17, Sean Sutherlin 2, Ladan Ricketts 14, Josh Bagley 10, Channel Banks 18, AJ Bramah 11, Caleb Stewart 4, Keenan Dowell 3, Kon Anguik 8.