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Casper College Basketball - Womens

Casper College's Maggie Justinak brings the ball up the court in the T-Birds' game against Central Wyoming College on Wednesday at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym.

In the midst of Casper College’s sweeping 27-1 run on Wednesday night, the Thunderbirds felt comfortable and confident. They were back in their groove, and when they’re in rhythm they’re tough to beat.

The T-Birds used that run to beat Central Wyoming College 81-53 and start Region IX North play with a victory on their home court. That incredible run, predicated by defensive pressure, sparked the T-Birds to a 38-10 half-time lead.

Central Wyoming was able to turn its game around in the second half and improved. Part of that was due to coaching adjustments, but there was a notable decrease in focus from the T-Birds, who regularly led by 30 points in the second half.

“It’s hard to stay focused as you are in the first half if you have a big cushion, but that’s part of the challenge you need to do,” Casper College head coach Dwight Gunnare said. “This group is awesome. They’re an awesome group and I know they’ll get it. They still played great in the second half but there was a little bit of a let-off.”

Now on a four-game winning streak, the T-Birds (12-4, 1-0 Region IX North) suffered some stunning losses in the first half of the season. First, there was the four-point loss to Northeastern Junior College that the T-Birds avenged less than a week later by winning 75-56. Then there were the back-to-back losses to Utah State Eastern and Salt Lake Community College by a combined eight points. Finally, there’s the unspeakable 59-52 loss to Midland College, in which the T-Birds were outscored 24-7 in the fourth quarter.

Casper College sophomore Maggie Justinak noted that those tough losses were all on the road. That experience, she hopes, will benefit the T-Birds through the upcoming conference schedule where they have to play everyone on the road. Gunnare mirrored that sentiment.

“We played a tough schedule in the fall and we played a tough schedule on the road,” he said. “We do that because that prepares you for your conference. Sometimes you worry with the two-week break if there’s any carryover or not but I think our girls really did carry it over pretty well. And I hope we can keep doing this through conference play.”

Ultimately, the goal for these T-Birds remains qualifying for the NJCAA Tournament once again. That was the ultimate objective at the beginning of the season, even before opening the season at Swede Erickson Thunderbird Gym with two crushing wins. And if that goal ever wavered, the banner from last year’s qualifying team hangs from the rafters, just above the opposing bench.

Several faces return from that team, including Justinak. The Rock Springs native has started 15 games in her sophomore season while averaging 9.3 points and 2.4 assists per contest. She witnessed the program’s ascension last year and believes this year’s team can achieve the same.

“For sure,” she said. “Seeing how successful we were last year, we all want that again and we’re in a good position to do it. ... We just have to keep working hard and we’ll get there.”

The guard noted that Western Nebraska was the favorite among most to win the Region IX championship coming into this season. The T-Birds defeated them 83-63 on Monday.

A difficult road lies ahead for the T-Birds, but that’s why they played that tough first-half schedule. And that’s why Wednesday’s conference-opening win could prove so vital. They’ve had their hiccups but now the games matter that much more. They found confidence in themselves to pull away early from Central Wyoming and that makes them a dangerous team.

“I think there’s a lot of good teams in Region IX and stuff like that and I think we’re one of them” Gunnare said. “If we can stay healthy throughout the rest of the year and then we play well at tournament time, we’ve got as good of a chance as anybody does.”

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Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans

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High School Sports Reporter

Brady Oltmans reports on high school and local sports. He joined the Star-Tribune in July 2016 after covering prep sports and college soccer in Nebraska. He also contributes to University of Wyoming sports coverage. He and his dog live in Casper.

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