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NWC sophomores to lead men at regionals

Posted by: NWC Athletics — February 27, 2014
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By DANTE GEOFFREY Tribune Sports Writer Courtesy of the Powell Tribune

The Northwest College men’s basketball team finished below .500 in Region IX North play, but the Trappers’ three-game winning streak has the team feeling like they belong in postseason play. 

Head coach Brian Erickson said his team is heading into this weekend’s Region IX Tournament in Sterling, Colo., more than just confident. 

“It’s more of a belief,” Erickson said. “There’s a high belief that we can go into this tournament playing well and try to make a run at the championship.” 

Northwest (17-12 overall, 7-9 in the North) ended its season with wins at Central Wyoming and against Little Big Horn and Western Wyoming at home. The trio of victories helped to erase the sour taste of four straight losses. 

The Trappers tied for fourth place with Western and Miles Community College but tiebreakers dropped them to the sixth seed, which secured them a date with Laramie County Community College in the first round at 6 p.m. Sunday. 

Erickson said his team was carried by its sophomores as the regular season wound down. 

“As you get late in the year you really try to rely on your sophomores,” Erickson said. 

Starters Gary Gordon, Gabe Solarin, Lawrence Fejokwu and Franklin Uzonwanne have alternately stepped up to lead the Trappers down the stretch. 

Gordon is the Trappers’ leading scorer this season with 13.2 points per game, while Solarin (11.2) and Fejokwu (10.3) have been major contributors as well. 

Uzonwanne averaged 8.2 ppg this season but bumped that to 10.7 in February. In fact, all four of Northwest’s most integral contributors have increased their output during the team’s stretch run. 

Gordon has scored more than his season average in eight of Northwest’s 13 games in 2014, including back-to-back 22-point performances Feb. 8 and 12. 

Solarin has scored 13 or more points in five of his past six games and Fejokwu scored 24 points, the most for any Trapper in a conference game this season, Feb. 19 against Little Big Horn. 

Fejokwu and Uzonwanne, who provide the lion’s share of Northwest’s post points and presence, are invaluable on the defensive end, which makes them a target for opponents looking to draw quick fouls. 

“I know teams are going to look to attack them,” Erickson said. “And when they get the ball in the block we’ve had a lot of teams that double-team them and try to get the ball out of their hands.” 

The team’s 3-point shooting could cause spacing and matchup problems for opposing defenses. 

“The last few games we’ve been shooting more threes and we’re taking better shots than we were earlier in the year,” Erickson said. 

Northwest shot 36.6 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season but made 29-of-65 (44.6 percent) from long range during its season-ending three-game win streak. 

Erickson said his team, especially his second-year players, have increased their focus as their Northwest careers come to a close. 

“They just have that sense,” Erickson said. “They understand what it takes.” 

The coach said it will take smart offensive decision-making for the Trappers to advance deep into the bracket. 

“When we run our offense and take good shots, and take care of the ball, we’ll be all right,” Erickson said. 

The Trappers committed 31 and then 29 turnovers in two regular season losses to the LCCC Golden Eagles. But Erickson said the Trappers are “better at taking care of the ball than we were before.” 

Laramie beat Northwest 95-73 in Cheyenne on Nov. 8 and then came back from down 10 at half to win 89-82 in Powell on Dec. 13. 

Turnovers weren’t the only thing to doom the Trappers in the pair of defeats. Laramie’s high-scoring duo of Deon Edwin and Deshon Portley combined for 50 points in the November blowout and another 51 in December’s more competitive but ultimately disappointing contest.

Erickson conceded that it would be unrealistic to expect to completely shut down either player, but he wants his defense to dictate how they can and cannot get their points. 

“It’s more about limiting them and making all of their opportunities tough,” the coach said. “If both of them score 20 we’ve got to make them work for it.” 

If the Trappers beat Laramie they could find themselves in a rematch with Sheridan, the North’s No. 2 seed, in the quarterfinals. Sheridan will play Otero (No. 7 in the South) at 6 p.m. Saturday. 

A third crack at Sheridan would give the Trappers a chance to prove themselves against a team that beat them twice in the regular season, once 90-85 in a game controlled by the Generals, and then again in dramatic fashion on Northwest’s floor. 

Northwest led Sheridan by 16 in the second half but lost 79-78 in the game’s waning seconds on Feb. 12 in Powell. 

“We remembered what they did to us on their home court,” Erickson said. “We did not play well.” 

The coach said his team would relish the chance to play a North rival in the tourney’s second round, but there’s plenty of work to be done before that becomes a possibility. 

“If we get that opportunity to play Sheridan, great, but we really have to finish that first game,” Erickson said. 

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