The Trappers led by 25 points with 12:04 left in the second half but the Rustlers came back to within three before Northwest free throws sealed the much-needed win.
Northwest (10-7, 2-4) was four games behind first-place Gillette in Region IX North.
“We played unbelievable for 30 minutes,” said head coach Brian Erickson.
It was that final 10 that gave the Trappers trouble.
The coach said maintaining that large of a lead was something the team hadn’t experienced before, and he hopes both he and the players learn from it.
“We haven’t been in this position all year,” Erickson said. “We’re always the ones fighting so it’s a good thing for our guys to be able to learn to keep them down.”
The Trappers held a 10 point lead with 2:29 on the clock, but two quick Central baskets — including a steal and two-handed jam — cut Northwest’s lead to six.
Sophomore Lawrence Fejokwu was called for travelling on the Trappers’ next possession, which led to a Central Wyoming 3-pointer.
The Rustlers called a timeout immediately following the 3, with 19.9 seconds to play and the score at 56-53.
Northwest broke Central’s full-court press for an easy KJ Rech layup to push the lead back up to five.
The Rustlers hurried down the court for a quick two followed by a timeout. Northwest was up by three with just five seconds to play.
It took the Rustlers 4.5 seconds to commit a foul on the ensuing inbounds play, and NWC’s Colin May hit two free throws to clinch the victory.
“We’ve got to do a better job of facing adversity,” Erickson said. “We’re in the second half of the season. We should be playing at a higher level. And when you get into that second half, the last five minutes, you should be playing at a higher level than you did all game.”
Sophomore point guard Gary Gordon scored 15 points and grabbed five rebounds in the win.
Franklin Uzonwanne was a major presence down low as he scored 13 points, had six rebounds and committed no turnovers.
Gabe Solarin added nine points, three rebounds and two steals. The sophomore also used some nifty ball handling skills to break double-teams in the backcourt late in the second half.
A lack of aggressiveness hurt the Trappers in the second half.
Northwest was 10-for-10 on shots from the paint in the first half but “had a harder time finishing in the second half,” Erickson said.
The coach said the team’s intensity dropped as the lead got larger, and only kicked it back in gear when the score got close again.
“We lost some energy there, and it’s hard to get back,” Erickson said.
Northwest was bothered all night by Central’s Ryan Nemelka, who was 6-of-8 from 3-point range on his way to a Rustler-high 20 points and two rebounds.
Erickson said his team knew that Nemelka was a pure shooter, but still left him too open at times.
“It’s simple things that are hurting us,” the coach said.
Daryle Morgan added 17 points and had seven rebounds for the Rustlers.
The Trappers were without sophomore Andreas Bigum for the second straight game. The 6-8 swingman injured his lower back in Northwest’s first practice following last week’s Casper game.
Erickson said he does not have a timetable for Bigum’s return.
“We’re planning on moving forward without him,” Erickson said. “If he’s healthy to be back, great, if not, we need some guys to step up.”
Northwest will have to rely more on post players Uzonwanne, Fejokwu and Rech, if Bigum is to be lost for an extended period of time.
“Our bigs have done a better job of scoring, and now we need a little bit more scoring out of our guards,” Erickson said.
Northwest next plays at Little Big Horn College at 5 p.m. on Saturday.