A third consecutive trip to the NJCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship tournament unfortunately was not the charm for Blinn College.

The 19th-seeded Buccaneers faced 16th-ranked and 14th-seeded Casper College in the opening round of the national competition Wednesday, and ultimately fell 72-61 in what proved to be a de facto home game for the Thunderbirds inside the Ford Wyoming Center in Casper, Wyo.

After reaching the national tournament for a program-best third consecutive season, Blinn ended its year with a 24-10 record.

Following the conclusion of his 22nd season as head coach of the Bucs on Wednesday, Jeff Jenkins emerged from his team’s locker room with tears in his eyes.

“This group overachieved, and that’s not because of anything we as coaches did, it’s because these kids did not want to lose,” Jenkins said. “They have fight in them and they are going to play the best teams really well, and while they may not always win, they’re always going to fight. It’s emotional right now not because we lost, but because this group will never be back together again. You realize there are players on your team who you will never coach again and that’s why we cry … it’s not about losing.”

Tianna Mathis 2023-24
(Pictured: Blinn’s Tianna Mathis puts up a layup during a game against Casper College on March 27, 2024)

Blinn was riding a wave of offensive momentum heading into Wednesday’s matchup, but a 10-day break between its Region XIV Tournament championship win and the opener of the national tournament appeared to cool off the Bucs.

Blinn struggled to find any offensive momentum in the first half, firing just 17.5% (7 for 40) from the field. Those struggles allowed Casper, with a substantial and lively crowd on its side, to build a 39-21 halftime lead.

The Bucs got going in the third quarter with a 6-for-11 showing from the floor, but the Thunderbirds went an impressive 10 of 18 on their end to maintain its double-digit advantage.

Casper led 60-39 heading into the fourth period.

“This wasn’t our best basketball,” Jenkins added. “Casper was trying to force us into tough shots; they were daring us to shoot 3-pointers by protecting the paint and that’s not a bad strategy on their end. We were playing in a pretty big facility that we weren’t used to and it was tough for us to hit some open shots early.”

Though Blinn trailed by 15-20 points for most of the second half, it shot 44% and staged an admirable rally late in the game.

With 8:51 left to play, sophomore guard Tianna Mathis opened the fourth-quarter scoring with a 3. Freshman forward Tocarra Johnson followed with a jumper in the paint as the Bucs went on a 19-7 run. A triple from freshman guard Chelsy Singleton and a jumper from Mathis made it a 67-58 ballgame with 2:20 to go.

Tocarra Johnson 2023-24
(Pictured: Blinn’s Tocarra Johnson shoots during a game against Casper College on March 27, 2024)

“I was really proud of this team for cutting the deficit to nine,” Jenkins said. “We were down double digits for a good portion of the game, but we never packed it up – we kept fighting. Casper is really good and it was tough to defend them, and they showed why they’re in this tournament.”

A 3 from the Thunderbirds ended Blinn’s run as Casper held on to advance.

Singleton and Johnson each had a team-high 17 points, while Neal finished with 10. Johnson had a double-double thanks to 10 rebounds, while Mathis had seven points and nine boards. 

Mathis was a member of each of the three previous Blinn squads that reached the national tournament, and said saying goodbye to coach Jenkins and Buccaneer women’s basketball was the tougher result to accept Wednesday.

“I don’t think any one of us here would want to be here with anyone else. It’s not the loss that hurts as much as it is the fact that I won’t get to play with Jasmyn or any of these 14 special freshmen ever again,” Mathis said. “Then there’s coach Jenkins. He’s a great coach who always pushed us to be our best. I love him and I’m going to miss playing for him.”

Blinn has competed in intercollegiate athletics since 1903 and captured 45 NJCAA national championships since 1987. 

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