Casper College’s best season in years came to a surprising end Monday.
The ninth-seeded Thunderbirds played from behind throughout and lost 90-83 to 24th seed Cleveland State Community College in the first round of the National Junior College Athletics Association Men’s Division I Basketball Championship in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“This is a tough pill to swallow,” Casper College head coach Dan Russell said.
The T-Birds (32-3) led just twice all game — 55-54 and 64-62 — but the Cougars (16-15) answered on both occasions. In fact, every time Casper College looked like it was about to take control and avoid the upset Cleveland State managed to create some distance.
After Amin Adamu tied the game at 2-all, Cleveland State went on a 7-0 run. The T-Birds tied the game again at 17-all on Zion Tordoff’s layup, but he failed to complete the three-point play and the Cougars never trailed in the first half.
Sophomore point guard Isaac Bonton scored 18 of his game-high 32 points in the first half to keep the T-Birds close. But missed free throws — Casper College was 3 of 10 outside of Bonton’s 6-of-6 performance — and two late 3-pointers by the Cougars, including one that turned into a four-point play, gave Cleveland State a 50-42 lead at the break.
The T-Birds opened the second half on a 15-4 run to take their first lead on Bonton’s triple with 15 minutes, 31 seconds remaining. Once again, Cleveland State answered, going on a 6-0 run to lead 60-55.
After Adamu tied the game at 62-all with a driving layup, Broc Finstuen got free for a breakaway dunk to make it 64-62. This time, however, the Cougars responded with a 10-1 run capped by back-to-back wide-open 3s, forcing Casper College to take a timeout with less than 9 minutes to play.
The remainder of the game consisted of Casper College making a run only to see the Cougars come up with offensive rebounds or loose balls to keep the T-Birds at bay.
“It seems like they beat us to every 50-50 ball,” Russell said, “and it’s hard to win like that.”
Two free throws from Bonton made it a one-possession game at 84-81 with 1:02 on the clock, but Cleveland State made just enough free throws down the stretch to pull off the upset. The T-Birds were hampered by foul trouble throughout as Bonton, Wilfried Likayi, Adamu and Finstuen — the team’s four-leading scorers — all finished the first half with two fouls. Finstuen, Likayi and Adamu all fouled out in the final minute while Bonton finished with four.
“We got into foul trouble early and that kept us from getting into any kind of rhythm offensively,” Russell said.
Adamu finished with 14 points and Finstuen had all 11 of his points in the second half. Likayi, who came into the game averaging 17.1 points per game, had just nine points. Big men James Hampshire and Zion Tordoff combined for 12 points and 21 rebounds, but missed all five of their free-throw attempts.
Casper College was 31 of 68 (45.6 percent) from the field, but just 3 of 14 (21.4 percent) from behind the arc and 18 of 29 (62.1 percent) from the charity stripe. In addition, Cleveland State won the rebounding battle (50-47) and forced 16 turnovers.
Cleveland State, which will play No. 8 seed Ranger College on Tuesday, had four players finish in double figures, led by Jonathon King with 21 points.
Casper College finished the season tied with the 1969-70 team for the second-most wins in program history.
“We had a heck of a season, a historical season,” Russell said. “This team was an absolute joy to coach. They did a lot of great things for the college and for Casper.
“It’s just hard to believe it’s over.”