The Western Nebraska Community College women’s basketball team made some noise at last year’s NJCAA national tournament when they went 2-1 before falling in the quarterfinals to Three Rivers Community College. 

            This year the team has the same lofty goals plus some as they get ready to compete in the national tournament that begins Wednesday, March 16. The Cougars earned an at-large bid to the national tournament, just like they did last year. 

            “It means a lot that we are able to compete at nationals,” sophomore Ashley Panem said. “We basically got a second chance to do something special. We still have a lot to prove and this is the perfect place to do it.” 

            Ale’Jah Douglas said just getting to nationals is something special and the next step is up to the team. 

            “It means a lot and it is not something that is done easily,” Douglas said. “Not, the team needs to come in ready to play so we can jump on teams early if we want to win.” 

            WNCC, who was ranked as high as No. 4 in the country, earned the 12th seed and will face the 21st-seeded Murray State College, out of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, on Wednesday, March 16 at 7 p.m. MST. Murray State is 27-5 on the season. 

            The national tournament will take place in Lubbock, Texas, as Lubbock Christian University and the Cougars have made the national tournament field every year since 2017. WNCC earned two automatic berths as Region IX champions (2017 and 2019) and at-large berths the other four years. 

            In 2020, the Cougars garnered the highest seed in school history with a 7th seed with an at-large berth. WNCC was scheduled to play the winner of the Florida SouthWestern College and Murray State winner. That year, however, was hit my COVID and the tournament was postponed on March 12 and later canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. 

            The Cougars enter the national tournament at 27-2 while the Aggies of Murray State are 27-5. 

            The winner of the WNCC and Murray State contest will face No. 5 Wabash Valley State on Friday, March 18 at 2 p.m. 

            “At this point I don’t know how much a number beside a name means,” WNCC coach Chad Gibney said. “We are just going to take it one day at a time and we have to play a very talented, well-coached Murray State team.” 

            The players definitely know what they need to do because all 24 teams in the field are capable of winning on any given day. 

            “There will be some good competition that we will face,” Douglas said, “especially with it being the best teams in the nation competing against each other.” 

            WNCC and Murray State have played each other three times since the early 2000s. The first time was in 2001-02 when WNCC won 75-49. The second meeting happened on November 39, 2005 when WNCC won going away 92-56. The third encounter saw Murray State top the Cougars 5054 on December 3, 2012, at the Air Force Prep Classic. 

            Panem said for them to be successful, they will need a team effort to win. 

            “Everyone at nationals is good. It really is the best of the best,” Panem said. “They all earned a right to be there and worked for it. At nationals we need to play together and focus on being aggressive. We also need to lock in on defense and to our job.” 

            It should be a good battle between WNCC and Murray State. The two teams have faced each three times in the past and WNCC leads the series 2-1. 

            The first meeting between the two schools came in 2001-02 when WNCC won 75-49. The second meeting came on November 29, 2005, at the Air Force Prep Classic with the Cougars winning 92-56. The third match-up happened Dec. 3, 2012 and Murray State earned the win 59-54. 

            This hear, it could be an interesting game. 

            WNCC ran off 21 straight wins before being upset in the semifinals of the Region IX tournament by Eastern Wyoming College 69-49.  

            Murray State enters having won 10 straight games including defeating No. 2 seed Eastern Oklahoma State College 77-64 in the regional championship game. 

            Murray State’s last loss came on Jan. 31 when Northern Oklahoma Enid defeated them 89-79. 

            The Cougars themselves lost just twice all season. Besides the loss to EWC at regionals, the team fell to College of Southern Idaho on November 20 in a high-scoring affair 95-89. 

            What these two teams bring to the table on Wednesday are two rather even teams. Both teams have some height with Murray State having three players 6-foot or taller and the Cougars have xx players. 

            The tall timber for the Aggies include 6-1 freshman Jumoke Adaramoye, 6-2 freshman Sierra Headquist, and 6-0 freshman Reese Webb. 

            The Aggies also have three players averaging in double figures. They include Alena Wilson at 15.2 points. She also is pulling down 7.3 rebounds a game. Then there is Alaijah Stewart averaging 13.6 points and has buried 97 3-pointers to lead the team in that category. The final double-digit scorer is Briana Knabe at 11.6 points a game.  

            Then there is sharp drop off with the next play averaging 6.7 points in Holli Lindley. 

            The Cougars are a little bit more balanced with five averaging in double figures or above nine points a game. 

            Douglas leads the way at 18.1 points and needs just 53 more points to reach the 1,000 career mark, which would only the fourth Cougar women’s player to reach 1,000 career points. Douglas is also shooting 84.9 percent from the charity stripe. 

            Amani Brown, who earned NJCAA All-American honors a year ago at Vincennes University, is averaging 12.1 points a contest and has buried 37 3-pointers. 

            Next is Martrice Brooks, who is averaging 10.5 points and 4.2 rebounds a contest. 

            Aminta Zie, the 6-3 post player is next at 10 points a contest. Zie is also pulling down 8.3 rebounds a contest. Zie is making 69.1 percent of her shots which leads the NJCAA. 

            Then there is Shanti Henry, who is averaging 9.3 points a contest. Henry leads the team with 56 made 3-pointers this season and has 86 made treys on the season, needing just 14 more to finish with 100 made 3-pointers, which would make her one of just six players to have made 100 3-pointers in her career. 

            The key to the game, though, is which team plays the better defense. WNCC is holding their opponents to 56.7 points a contest. Murray State is allowing 60.7 points a contest. Offensively the team teams are high scoring. Murray State is averaging 79.3 points a contest while WNCC is scoring at an 88.3 clip, which is second in the nation. 

            The team that leads the nation is Wabash Valley at 89.1 points a game. The winner of the WNCC and Murray State game will face Wabash Valley in the sweet 16 on Friday at 2 p.m. MST. 

            Panem agrees that defense will be the key in moving on in the tournament. 

            “We must defend well and make sure if we get beat, it’s because the other team is better,” the sophomore from Broomfield, Colorado, said. “We cannot beat ourselves. We have to be aggressive and assertive and play together. Defense wins championships and that speaks for itself. We have to be focused on our matchups and the rest will come.” 

            Wabash Valley, who the winner will face on Friday, was one of eight teams to receive a first-round bye. Wabash Valley is seeded fifth in the tournament.  

            The eight teams that received the first-round bye include top-seeded Three Rivers Community College followed by No. 2 Shelton State, No. 3 Georgia Highlands, No. 4 Northwest Florida State, No. 5 Wabash Valley, No. 6 College of Southern Idaho, No. 7 Blinn College, and No. 8 Arizona Western. 

            First-round games will be played Wednesday and Thursday, March 16-17. Besides WNCC’s game on Wednesday, other first-round match-ups on March 16 include No. 16 Chipola College against No. 17 Tyler Junior College at 9 a.m.; No. 9 South Georgia Tech against No. 24 Monroe College at 11 a.m.; No. 15 Moberly Area Community College vs. No. 18 Eastern Florida State at 1 p.m.; No. 10 New Mexico Junior College against No. 23 Jones College at 3 p.m.; No. 13 South Plains against No. 20 North Dakota State College of Science at 5 p.m. and then WNCC against Murray State to wrap up the first day. 

            The rest of the first round will be played on the second day, Thursday, March 17. Those two games will pit No. 14 Casper College against No. 19 Hutchinson, and No. 11 Trinity Valley Community College against No. 22 Walters State at 11 a.m. 

            The tournament continues with quarterfinal matches Saturday, March 19 with the semifinal matches on Sunday, March 20. The championship is slated for Monday, March 21 in Lubbock, Texas.