By Ken McDowell
In a game that had more twists and turns than Rocky Mountain National Park, the Northeastern Junior College (NJC) Plainsmen pulled off an exciting 105-102 cliff-hanger over arch rival Western Nebraska Community College (WNCC) Friday in the Bank of Colorado Event Center.
The Region IX South contest was not decided until the final possession when NJC was able to hold off the Cougars to improve to 10-6 overall and 1-0 in Region IX South while snapping an eight-game losing streak against WNCC.
Western Nebraska, coached by former Sterling High School (SHS) and NJC standout Cory Fehringer, falls to 10-6 overall and 0-1 in Region IX South.
With the Plainsmen holding onto a 105-102 lead, WNCC could not hit the game-tying three-pointer in the final seconds. NJC freshman Jared Adams got the rebound and drove for a dunk but the officials waved off the bucket declaring that time had expired.
Regardless, NJC claimed the big Region IX South victory.
The Plainsmen trailed by as many as six points with just under 5:00 left in the contest before rallying for the victory.
"The key down the stretch for us was going to the hole and attacking the rim," said NJC Coach Eddie Trenkle. "We gave our big guys a chance to score and that's what got our guys open outside and we hit our shots."
The game featured 13 ties and nine lead changes with the Cougars of WNCC mostly controlling the first half, but not by much as NJC also made some key stops on defense while hitting some crucial shots on offense.
The biggest lead of the game by either team was seven points by WNCC.
After trailing early by four points, NJC took its first lead of the game at 11-10 on three free throws freshman guard Dalton Knecht.
Western Nebraska took a 21-15 lead but NJC came right back to tie the score on three-pointers by freshman guard Cyler Kane-Johnson and Knecht.
Western Nebraska's biggest lead in the first half was 34-28 before NJC answered once again to tie the score on buckets by freshman Rashon Barron, sophomore Ryan Bagley and a pair of free throws by Kane-Johnson.
Western Nebraska led 55-50 in the closing seconds of the first half before two charity tosses by Knecht closed the gap to 53-50 in favor of the Cougars at the intermission.
WNCC built its biggest advantage of the game at 62-55 early in the second half before NJC once again refused to fold, taking the lead at 64-63 on a trey by Knecht.
The Cougars led by six points a couple of more times but could not shake off the determined Plainsman squad. A trey by freshman Mohamed Diallo kept NJC close at 94-93 with 3:43 left and a bucket and a pair of free throws by Knecht gave the Plainsmen the lead at 97-96 at the 2:52 mark.
WNCC tied the game for the 13th time at 97-97 before Knecht attempted a trey with 2:24 left and was fouled. The Thornton native once again hit all three free throws to put NJC at the century mark and the lead for good at 100-97 with 2:24 left.
WNCC did close to within a point at 103-102 with :34 left but Knecht calmly sank two more free throws pushing the NJC lead to 105-102 before the missed desperation trey attempt by WNCC ended all of the drama.
The contest also featured 41 combined fouls and numerous trips to the charity stripe by both teams. NJC was 28-for-34 from the line for 82% as Knecht was a perfect 13-for-13 to help NJC to victory.
WNCC was 39-for-43 from the line for a blistering 91%.
Knecht poured in a career-high 29 points for the Plainsmen; Bagley 17; Kane-Johnson 15; Diallo 11; Barron 10; freshman Quincey Jewett 7; Adams 6; freshman Ryan Ongala 5; Sterling's Wade Kellogg 3 and sophomore Sami Logoro and freshman Andrew Ferrin 2 points each.
Western Nebraska sophomore guard Teddy Allen led all scorers with 39 points.
NJC out-rebounded the Cougars 37-29, led by Ferrin and Jewett with 6 each. Bagley led in assists with 7 and in steals with 5.
Each team turned the ball over 9 times.
Trenkle said that defeating WNCC, the two-time defending Region IX South champion, was a big win for his team.
"This was a pretty emotional game," Trenkle observed. "There is a reason why Western Nebraska won the South Region the last couple of years. They are very good team and Cory does an excellent job and they play hard. He works hard on everything he does.
"We have to continue to play hard and battle on every possession. We took better shots tonight and had better movement. We were also pretty pumped up to play this game, so I think we have to continue to battle and make every game like this one."
Fehringer, a 2003 graduate of SHS, was also a key member of NJC's Region IX Tournament championship team in 2005 which was coached by Brian Joyce. NJC won that tournament in the Bank of Colorado Event Center.
He was a sophomore on the 2006 NJC squad that finished runner-up in the Region IX Tournament at Sheridan, Wyo., losing to Sheridan College in double-overtime.
After taking over as head coach of the Cougars in 2016, Fehringer led the team to the Region IX Tournament title at Otero Junior College in 2018, making him a champion as a player and a coach. WNCC advanced to the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., and posted a 1-1 mark.
Last year WNCC won the Region IX South title but lost in the semi-finials of the Region IX Tournament in Sheridan to Casper, Wyo., College.
Fehringer noted that NJC made the key plays down the stretch with everything on the line in Friday's game.
"It came down to who was going to make the least amount of mistakes down the stretch," he said. "I think NJC was a lot tougher in the last two minutes.
"They kept their composure and their poise and we kind of got disconnected and panicked and didn't make good decisions down the stretch."
Fehringer's squad consists of 10 freshmen this season, and the Coach noted the Cougars are still going through some growing pains.
"We are young and have had our challenges as far as experience," Fehringer said. "We have learned some tough lessons throughout the year, but this is still part of the process playing games like this.
"NJC wanted to win this game at home and we still need to have that sense of urgency to come out and play sharp the entire game."
Retuning to the same court that he won a Region IX Tourney title wearing the Plainsmen uniform is still very special to Fehringer.
"I'm so appreciative of the NJC community and the campus," he said. "Every time I walk in I see love from people who watched me grow up from a little boy and prepare myself as a young man.
"I can't thank NJC enough what this college did for me as a basketball player but more importantly as I continue to grow and be the best man that I can be."
Both teams will meet again on Thurs., Feb. 13 at WNCC's Cougar Palace.
With 12 players breaking into the scoring column, Trenkle is happy with the contributions from all of the players, not just in the win over WNCC, but the entire season.
"This is the deepest team I think I've ever had," he said. "It's very close to the first year I was here in 2007 when we won the Region IX Tournament and we had 13 or 14 solid kids.
"We can do pretty much the same now by playing almost everybody and they all contributed."
NJC will travel to North Platte Community College Tuesday for another Region IX South contest.