The high-energy, attractive, up-tempo and stifling defense that Natrona County started its season with and made fans believe that the culture around Mustangs basketball had changed seems to have stayed, well, at the start of the season.
After going 3-0 in the first weekend of the season, the Mustangs welcomed Laramie to Jerry Dalton Gym on Friday night having won just one game in their last 11. After another inconsistent 32 minutes filled with hope and head scratches, the Mustangs' futility reached a season-high with a sixth consecutive loss -- 53-51 loss to the Plainsmen. This one, however, may have been the most painful of all -- a double-digit comeback erased through effort only to be sunk by a last-second jumper.
Laramie burst out of the gates while the Mustangs struggled to compete at the frantic tempo on the offensive end. The Plainsmen, possibly still carrying momentum from last week's 17-point win over Thunder Basin, jumped out to an 18-9 lead at the end of the initial quarter.
"That's starting to become a trend and we've been talking about it, coming out with energy," NC head coach Phil Choler said. "We weren't ready to go tonight."
So the Mustangs went back to the drawing board. They'd been in four-quarter battles before this year and clawed their way back from more than the 15-point deficit they faced midway through the second quarter. A few stops, a timely corner 3 from Koby Kelly, a driving layup from Isaac Spear and, suddenly, the Mustangs had dwindled their deficit down to just 3 in a matter of minutes. Of course, running intertwined with the home team's current run of luck, a corner 3 from Laramie's Garrett Dodd extended the Plainsmen's lead back to 6 and slowed momentum going into halftime.
Laramie leading scorer Christian Mickelson, who averaged 14.6 per game coming in, already had tallied 13 in the game's first 19 minutes. That's where he -- and the totality of players on the court -- stalled. Neither team scored for nearly 3 minutes before Mickelson's hook shot deep in the paint extended Laramie's lead to 32-25 with just 2 minutes left in the third. That popped the cork on both teams. The two sides traded buckets the rest of the quarter, forcing Laramie to cling to its five-point lead for the final 8 minutes.
The Mustangs erased the deficit entirely in the first few minutes. Kelly hit a 3 and, after a timeout, scored a transition layup to draw the home team even for the first time since the scoreless start. Mickelson answered with a slashing and-1 followed by a Euro-step layup through the heart of the defense. But it wasn't enough. Natrona County senior Ryan Sorenson hit a 3 to pull the Mustangs within a point before a strong finish under the basket by Cooper Quig gave the Mustangs their first lead with just a minute left.
Then a 3 from Dodd with 14 seconds left put Laramie up again. The Mustangs quickly ran the court only to turn the ball over on the drive. But that pesky defense would give them another shot, trailing by 2 with 1.9 seconds left. Inbounding inside their defensive end, the Mustangs threw it down court to call timeout in the advantageous half with 0.7 seconds remaining. But Kelly couldn't get a shot off and the Mustangs left heartbroken once more.
"We've got the ball in our of our best players hands there and you want to take your chances," Choler said. "It just looked like he slipped a little bit."
Mickelson finished with a game-high 23 points. Kelly led the Mustangs with 14 and Quig added 12.
Follow sports reporter Brady Oltmans on Twitter @BradyOltmans
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