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No. 18 Casper College women's basketball team braces for tough stretch
CASPER COLLEGE WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

No. 18 Casper College women's basketball team braces for tough stretch

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The Casper College women’s basketball team entered this season with a lot of question marks. After all, the Thunderbirds had to replace four starters and their four leading scorers off last year’s team that lost in the Region IX championship game.

Nine games into the 2019-20 campaign the T-Birds have already found some answers. Casper College goes into this weekend’s Sheridan Thanksgiving Classic at No. 18 in the latest NJCAA Top 25 poll with an 8-1 record. Its only loss was a 78-70 setback at No. 11 Western Nebraska Community College on Nov. 19.

“I’m really pleased with our start,” Casper College head coach Dwight Gunnare said. “I think we’ve found a good blend with our freshmen and our returning sophomores.”

Heading into Friday’s game against Northwest College the T-Birds’ three leading scorers are all freshmen — 5-foot-8 guard Natalia Otkhmezuri (14.1 points per game), 5-9 forward Marija Bakic (12.8) and 5-10 forward Juneau Jones (11.2). Sophomore forward Mya Jones is fourth at 9.3 ppg.

Gunnare admitted he and assistant coach Nate Macy weren’t sure what to expect from Otkhmezuri; who hails from Tbilisi, Georgia; and Bakic, who is from Montenegro.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised with both Natalia and Marija,” Gunnare said. “Obviously, we were impressed when we watched their tapes. But when all you’ve got to go off is their tapes, you never know if that’s the norm for them or if you’re just seeing their highlights.

“We’re finding out with both of them that it’s the norm.”

The next step for the T-Birds, and more importantly the freshmen, is finding out how they respond to the team’s upcoming stretch of four games in five days. After playing Northwest College and the Rocky Mountain College JV on back-to-back days Friday and Saturday, Casper College heads to Colorado to face Trinidad State Junior College on Monday and Otero Junior College on Tuesday.

“It will be interesting to see how we handle four games in five days,” Gunnare said. “That’s a lot of basketball and a lot of bus miles in a short time frame. We’re going to know a lot more about this team when we finish this stretch of games.”

The 8-1 start is even more impressive considering the T-Birds are averaging 13.8 turnovers per game and are shooting just 40.4 percent from the field, including 33.2 percent on 3-pointers, and 58.9 percent from the free-throw line.

“I think our shooting percentages are maybe because of the pace we’re playing at,” Gunnare said. “We push the ball, so we are taking some quick shots instead of working the ball around to get better shots.

“We need to work on controlling the tempo more, but at the same time I don’t want to bridle their enthusiasm.”

The T-Birds have offset those numbers with a plus-7 rebounding margin and by locking down on defense. Opponents are shooting just 30.9 percent from the field and 28.0 percent from behind the arc.

Despite the occasional lulls offensively, Casper College is averaging 72.3 points per game, a number which Gunnare expects to increase as the season continues.

“I think we’re starting to figure things out,” he said. “And what has really impressed me with this group is they play hard for 40 minutes so I know our mistakes aren’t effort-based.

“But this is a whole different type of game four our freshmen, and that’s why it’s so important for our sophomores to be there for them because they have been through this and they can help us keep things on track.”

Follow sports editor Jack Nowlin on Twitter @CASJackN

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Sports Editor

Jack Nowlin returned to the Star-Tribune in 2007 after eight years covering Michigan State University athletics. A Wyoming native, and a graduate of Jeffrey City High School and the University of Wyoming, Jack serves as the Star-Tribune’s sports editor.

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