Guard D.J. Morgan soaked in the scene after the Northwest College men’s basketball team swept aside all challenges last week and Saturday night qualified for the National Junior College Athletic Association championships for the first time since 1969.
Fans in the standing room only crowd at Cabre Gym charged the court, players and coaches hugged and jumped up and down as the Trappers savored just the third Region IX title and qualification to compete for a national crown in Hutchinson, Kan.
“It was so crazy,” Morgan said of the post-game atmosphere. “It was like a party.”
It was certainly a hoops festival. In what has been one of the most remarkable journeys in the program’s history, Northwest disposed of Western Nebraska, 101-77, North Platte, 85-72, and Gillette, 112-86, on consecutive nights as the host of the regional tournament. Those triumphs followed a 104-74 win over Little Big Horn College in a first-round play-in game the preceding Saturday that guaranteed the home-field advantage.
Northwest is 30-4, has won 17 straight games, and not lost since Jan. 9. The Trappers were ranked 15th in the nation in the final-regular-season poll, but have won four additional games since the last vote.
Only once in school history has a Trapper team finished better than this one that is still playing. During the 1966-67 season Northwest finished 32-4 and placed fourth in Hutchinson. The only return trip Northwest made to the NJCAAs was in 1969, but that team did not place. This year’s squad is still one of 24 teams in the hunt for a national championship. The tournament runs March 16-21.
Coach Brian Erickson never took time to really appreciate his team’s run to the Region IX event because he was so focused on getting the Trappers ready to play again. But he declared a two-day holiday from practice after the Gillette victory.
“You keep worrying about the next game,” Erickson said. “I’m going to take 48 hours and enjoy this.”
There has been much to enjoy.
Northwest sprinted to a 50-32 halftime lead over Western Nebraska. Five players scored at least 14 points in that contest. The same Trappers who have led all season, sophomore center Chris Boucher (15 points, 13 rebounds), and guard William “Nicky” Desilien (21 points, 10 assists), did it again. They are long-time friends who came together to Powell from Quebec and have been the inside-outside spark. The 6-foot-10 Boucher has dominating rebounding and shot blocking, and Desilien has lightning speed and passing. Desilien’s alley-oop feeds to Boucher for dunks have become a crowd-pleasing trademark and the “Cabre Crazies,” as the most devoted fans call themselves, go wild whenever they pull off that play.
E.J. Hubbard and back-up Ammar Rehman scored 15 points each and Morgan had 14.
Boucher, whose presence is sought by many NCAA Division I schools for next year, turned in one of his awe-inspiring signature games against North Platte, dropping in 28 points, ripping down 15 rebounds and swatting away 8 shots. Desilien fired in 24 points and Morgan contributed 10.
That victory positioned Northwest for its highest stakes game in 45 years. Showing off the depth that has sometimes been overshadowed by the flashy play of the two stars, the Trappers obtained 14 points from guard Colin May and 13 from back-up forward Dan Milota. Hubbard was huge with 23 points, including five 3-pointers, Desilien hit for 31, and Boucher scored 11 points and grabbed 18 rebounds.
The setting inside Cabre, which had about 1,200 people in the house and many lining the sides of the court, is something Hubbard, from Converse, Tex., is not likely to forget.
“We were on top of the world,” he said. “In the beginning of the season I looked at the talent and thought we were going to be really good, but I didn’t think we would be this good. It’s mind-boggling that we’re going to the national championships. We really made it.”
Morgan said losing a scrimmage to Snow College in Utah in September was a reality check. The Trappers felt they were the better team. After that, he said, “We had this chip on our shoulder.”
What lies ahead in Hutchinson, the Mecca for post-season junior-college basketball, are 23 other teams like Northwest that won when they had to so they could quality.
“That’s where the best of the best go,” Morgan said. “I can’t wait.”