The Casper College men’s basketball team is playing with house money.
The Thunderbirds (22-9) enter Thursday’s Region IX Tournament quarterfinal game in La Junta, Colorado, against host Otero Junior College as decided underdogs. After all, the T-Birds had to defeat Western Wyoming Community College in a first-round game while the 15th-ranked Rattlers (27-3) earned the right to host the tournament by winning the South sub-region.
And that’s all fine with Casper College head coach Dan Russell.
“I feel good about playing them,” Russell said. “They’ve got all the pressure on them being at home and being the top seed. We just need to go have fun and play.”
The T-Birds bring a three-game winning streak into Thursday’s game, having knocked off two Top 25 teams in Sheridan College and Gillette College prior to defeating Western Wyoming.
“I feel like we have some good momentum going into this game,” Russell said. “And we’re definitely battle-tested.”
A look at the current Casper College roster is a testament to Russell’s statement.
Two players who were part of the T-Birds’ rotation during the season are no longer with the team and big men Zion Tordoff and Octavion Corley are out with injuries. In addition, backup point guard Isaiah Banks has been limited with a foot injury, although he did play some vital minutes in the win over Western Wyoming.
“We had Isaiah suit up just in case we had an emergency type situation,” Russell said. “And he ended up playing some huge minutes for us in the first half when Chase (Winchester) got into foul trouble.
“But that’s the kind of year it’s been for us. We just keep showing up and defeating the odds. It’s been a wild year.”
While the T-Birds might be running out of healthy bodies, they still have enough talent to make a postseason run.
Sophomore center Antun Maricevic averages a team-best 15.5 points per game and is second in the North sub-region in field-goal percentage at 67.2. Winchester has returned from a first-semester injury to run the team and average 13.5 points. Freshmen Nolan Bertain (14.4) and Wilfried Likayi (10.7) are also averaging double-digit points.
They’ll be facing an Otero team that, according to Russell, is “physical and aggressive and really fast-paced in their half-court offense.” Russell also expects the Rattlers to pressure man to man all over the court.
“It’s going to be a big test for our guards,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re ready for the challenge.
“This season has been such a struggle, but this team is so much fun to watch. Every time you count these guys out they answer the bell.”
If the T-Birds can pull off the upset, they would face the winner of the Gillette College-Trinidad State Junior College game in the semifinals Friday.