Losing your leading scorer and only assistant coach late in the season isn’t usually a recipe for success. The Casper College men’s basketball team, however, has won four in a row since guard Kenard Richardson and assistant coach Carlos Taylor were dismissed from the team following an altercation at the end of the Thunderbirds’ overtime loss to Northwest College on Jan. 21 in Powell.
“Losing Kenard was a big piece,” sophomore guard Jaren Harris said, “but we all have the mentality that it’s next man up. That’s what is good about this team is we have so many pieces.”
The T-Birds (19-5, 4-1 Region IX North) have used a balanced attack to help replace Richardson’s 19.8 points per game.
Harris scored a season-high 24 points in Wednesday’s 91-84 victory at Laramie County Community College and is averaging 17.3 points per game in the four-game winning streak. Sophomores Dalton Peterson and Nestor Dyachok are averaging 17.0 ppg, Jamison Epps is adding 14.8 ppg and 10.0 rebounds per contest and Darius Robinson is pitching 9.5 ppg off the bench.
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The T-Birds will be counting on another group effort Saturday when they host Northwest College (17-7, 4-0), which has a half-game lead over Casper College in the North sub-region. And with just five games remaining in the regular season there’s more than just revenge at stake for the T-Birds.
“There’s not a whole lot of time or opportunities to make up for mistakes now,” Casper College head coach Shaun Gutting said. “We have to capitalize on these moments.”
Turnover is commonplace in junior college basketball, but the T-Birds have benefited from the experience of two-year players Harris and Peterson and sophomore big man Ousmane Dia, who is in his third year with the program.
“Those guys have been great,” Gutting admitted. “I think those guys are a reflection of who we are and the culture we’ve built. And even the sophomores who transferred in have worked together to figure out what is expected. They’re finding out that the success is there when you buy into it.”
With the winner of the North sub-region hosting this year’s Region IX Tournament, Saturday’s game has major postseason consequences. A Northwest victory would give the Trappers a two-game lead over the T-Birds and LCCC, while a T-Birds victory would result in a tie at the top with four games remaining before the Region IX Tournament.
The stretch run might have been more manageable with Richardson on the court and Taylor on the sidelines, but the T-Birds still on the roster have embraced their new roles.
“Guys are really comfortable right now knowing that they’re all going to get opportunities to impact the game,” Gutting said. “It’s not something they can control, but at the same time it’s accepting the reality of what is. Guys have stepped up.
“It’s a group that has really seen how this can be successful and hopefully they can keep staying the course.”
The course to the North title continues against the Trappers. And the T-Birds expect to be ready for the challenge.
“We’re pumped,” Harris said. “We can’t wait.”