It wasn’t indicative by the final score – a 118-72 victory – but the Casper College men’s basketball team had to overcome some adversity Wednesday in their Region IX North opener against Central Wyoming College.
Less than 3 minutes into the game, leading scorer Isaac Bonton went to the bench after picking up his second foul. Central Wyoming then scored to cut the Thunderbirds’ lead to 8-7.
The T-Birds then showed why they’re the No. 10 team in the country.
Broc Finstuen and Wilfried Likayi made 3-pointers and Philip Pepple Jr. and Zion Tordoff got loose inside for dunks as Casper College pushed the lead to 29-19. Finstuen, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who played at Central Wyoming last year, scored 11 of his 19 points during the run.
“Broc isn’t really a guy who is looking to score much,” Casper College head coach Dan Russell said. “He’s more like our utility belt. He just does all the intangible things and all the things that don’t show up on the box score. He guards the other team’s best perimeter guy, he rebounds, he’s unselfish and he makes the right passes.
“He’s capable of scoring, we just have so many guys.”
That was evident Wednesday as six T-Birds finished in double figures. Bonton scored 20 of his game-high 26 points in the second half; Finstuen and high-flying sophomore guard Amin Adamu pitched in 19 apiece; Likayi, playing his first game in nearly two months, added 18; 7-1 sophomore James Hampshire powered his way to 13 points; and Pepple, a 6-9 freshman, came off the bench to score 10.
After the Rustlers fought back within five points at 31-26, the T-Birds once again took control of the game.
Sophomore guard Keiron Goodwin hit a wing 3 to start a 12-0 run that included back-to-back-to-back dunks by Likayi, Hampshire and Adamu. The T-Birds (16-1, 1-0) finished the half with an 11-0 run to take a 59-34 lead into the locker room despite Bonton playing limited minutes.
“Even with Isaac playing only six minutes we were still up 25,” Russell said. “And that’s a credit to Jalen (Harris). Those two push each other every day in practice and it was nice to have Jalen be able to come in and get us over the hump.”
The freshman Harris didn’t score in 22 minutes on the court, but had a handful of assists and directed the T-Birds’ fast-paced offense. Casper College, which is now averaging 106.7 points per game, has topped the century mark in 12 of 17 games.
“We just have to push it every time we get it and that’s when we’re at our best,” Finstuen said. “Once Isaac goes out that’s a huge piece that we’re missing. But doing what we did without him just shows how comfortable we are with each other and how deep we are.”
The second half began with former Wind River standout Taylor Tidzump knocking down two 3-pointers for Central Wyoming, but the T-Birds answered with two free throws from Adamu and eight consecutive points from Bonton to put the game away.
“I just really trust this team and I know they can pick it up even without me on the court,” Bonton said. “I just have to keep a positive attitude and support my teammates. This is the most fun team I’ve ever played on. We’re cohesive on the court and we’ve got each other’s back off the court.”
With 13 Region IX North games remaining, the T-Birds know the grind of the conference season is just beginning. They also know their No. 10 ranking means every other team in the conference, including No. 22 Sheridan College, wants to be the one to knock them off.
“The No. 10 ranking in the country is awesome,” Russell said, “but at the same time it creates a huge target on our back. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot every night.
“I think it’s going to be good for us because it will hold us accountable. Hopefully we don’t have any hiccups, but if we do we just have to fight through adversity.”
Added Bonton: “This is what you want as a competitor. That target on our back drives us to go even harder every day. Our ranking is just a mirror image of all the work we put in off the court and on the court.”