Niagara Gazette — SANBORN — The area down the hall from the Niagara County Community College women’s basketball team’s locker room was more slip-and-slide than walking space by the end of Thursday.
The Thunderwolves accomplished a program-first, and then each player proceeded to celebrate with a collective dip in the school’s pool — uniform and all. When the swim ended, they stopped in the hallway outside the gym for a postgame chat with women’s coach Nate Beutel, dripping water all over the floor.
The talk ended and the first-ever NCCC women’s team to host the NJCAA Region III tournament — come next weekend — posed for a picture.
The Thunderwolves earned that distinction with a 63-60 home overtime win over Jamestown Community College in their regular season finale, giving them the regular season regional title. Had the result gone the other way, JCC would have hosted the region’s final four, which is set for March 1 and 2.
The men’s team continued the momentum built by women in the nightcap of a doubleheader against JCC, downing the Jayhakws, 88-66, in its final regular season contest.
In some ways it’s been gradual process since the inception of the program to get the women to what Beutel called a “program-changing moment.” Then again, the ascension has been rapid the last couple years considering the Thunderwolves went 1-24 two years ago. They improved to 13-15 last season, Beutel’s first on the job.
The Thunderwolves finish atop the region at 25-4, 6-2 Western New York Athletic Conference.
“We’re just making strides as a program,” Beutel said. “This is another step in our journey to where we want to be, which is at the top of the region. We can’t stop now. We want to complete the journey.”
It was business as usual for Jaclyn Welch, leading the Thunderwolves with 22 points while adding seven rebounds. As it also was for Kristine Ripson, who finished with 12 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, three blocks and three steals.
Alba Perez quietly played the determining factor in the game, though. She battled on the glass, finishing with 14 rebounds and scoring 11 points on 5 for 5 shooting. Perez also had three steals and two blocks.
But her biggest contribution, in a night full of them, came with the game on the line in overtime.
With NCCC up, 59-57, early in the final minute, an Elle Reed lay-in and successful free throw for a three-point play gave JCC the lead. Then, Perez stepped up.
She took a pass down low to the left of the basket the next time down the court, went up strong and finished at the rim to give NCCC a 61-60 lead with 42 seconds to play.
“She was not going to be denied,” Beutel said. “That’s exactly how she plays and I love that. That is what toughness is all about, the way she played down the stretch.”
A couple Jesse DeWaters free throws extended the advantage and NCCC became the home of the regional tournament when Reed’s 3-pointer in the dying seconds didn’t go. Reed had a game-high 34 points.
The Thunderwolves allowed just three points in the extra session.
“Both teams kind of had to grind it, and for us to come out on top with that type of win shows our toughness,” Beutel said. “Mental and physical toughness — that’s what we’ve been preaching for the last six months.”
NCCC’s opponent in the regional semifinal on March 1 is still unknown. Whoever it is will play in a gym the Thunderwolves are 9-1 at.
The men’s victory ended a three-game skid and secured them the No. 4 seed in the region. The Thunderwolves (22-5, 6-4 WNYAC) will host a sub-regional game Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. against fifth-seeded Mercyhurst North East with the winner advancing to the regional tournament, which also features the region’s top four teams and is held March 1 and 2. The two teams split the season series.
NCCC started the year 19-1 but a bit of a lag followed, going 2-4 since then before Thursday. A big win offsets that trying stretch and has the Thunderwolves trending in a favorable direction heading into their matchup with Mercyhurst.
EJ Sandoval had superb all-around showing, posting a triple-double with 13 points, 13 rebounds and 13 assists. Jordan Street also had a complete game, scoring 18 points, grabbing 17 rebounds and recording five steals. Eli Jones led the way offensively for the Thunderwolves, registering 31 points.
“We know that as right now we’re a 0-0 team,” Beilein said. “We talked about building confidence going into a 0-0 season. And we talked about retrospect. There’s lessons that are learned, lessons that are missed. That’s all over right now and the only thing we can do is learn from it.”
Like the women, the men are attempting to climb higher than any of the program’s past teams and that means winning the regional tournament.
“We’re looking forward to try to take that next step,” Beilein said, “and I think we have the crew that can do it.”
Follow contributing reporter Aaron Garland on Twitter @AA_Garland.