The 15th-ranked Otero Junior College men's basketball team got off to a hot start in the National Junior College Athletic Association Region IX Division 1 tournament Thursday at the McDivitt Center.

The Rattlers led Casper (Wyo.) College 48-29 at halftime; however, the Thunderbirds showed that they still had some fight in them in the second half. But OJC was able to hold off the rally and they hung on for an 86-77 win.

"In the Region IX Tournament, every team you play is going to be tough," said OJC coach Brendan O'Connor. "They're going to be well-coached, and Dan Russell is a great coach. They're going to have talented players, and you have to play for the complete 40 minutes of the game. We did a great job in the first half, and I was proud of our guys for making plays in the second, even though Casper made a run, which they should because they're a great team."

Chase Winchester scored the first points of the game for the Thunderbirds, but that would be the only time they would be in the lead. Josh McNair tied the score with two free thorws, and Jonathan Scott put the Rattlers in front.

Antun Maricevic tied the score, but the Rattlers went on a 7-2 run. Casper scored five straight points, but Otero answered with six straight. After a Winchester basket, OJC scored 10 unanswered points to stretch the lead to 29-13.

The Thunderbirds closed to within 31-18, but Chudier Bile scored five straight points for the Rattlers. Casper narrowed the deficit to 39-27, but Andre Arissol and Scott made back-to-back 3-point baskets for a 45-27 advantage.

Winchester scored again; however, Bile made a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 48-29 Otero lead.

Jervae Robinson made two free throws to begin the second half and gave the Rattlers a 50-29 advantage.

Casper made several charges, but the Rattlers would get a basket or two to keep a comfortable lead. The Thunderbirds closed the gap to 66-57 with 6:53 left in the game.

The Rattlers made 11 out of 14 free throws in the final 1:22 to hold on the the victory.

Bile led the Rattlers with 23 points and McNair scored 22. Scott added 14 and Robinson scored 10.

Winchester led the Thunderbirds with 26 points. Maricevic scored 15 and Wilfred Likayi scored 11.

Otero (28-3) will play Trinidad State Junior College in the semifinals today. The Trojans knocked off 25th-ranked Gillette (Wyo.) College 96-84 to advance to the second round.

"Mike Folda did a great job with this year's team and it's going to be a hell of a test for us," O'Connor said. "We're going to have to compete and we're going to have to share the ball better than we did tonight and take care of it better. This time of year, it's about who's going to make the effort plays, the hustle plays and the toughest plays."

Game time is at 7 p.m.

Trinidad State 96, No. 16 Gillette 84

The Trojans got off to a big lead in the first half as they led the Pronghorns 40-34 at halftime. Gillette made several charges, but could not get closer than a four-point deficit. Trinidad State pulled away late in the game.

Six Trojans scored in double figures. Job Alexander led TSJC with 23 points, followed by Charles Henderson with 16, Tykeem Anderson with 15, Isaac Essein with 14, Jesus Martinez with 11, and Trevell Cunningham with 10.

Ted McCree led the Pronghorns with 22 points. Trent Williams scored 17, Anthony Johnson scored 14, Abdul Muhomed scored 12, and Edwin Jeudy scored 10.

Western Nebraska 77, Central Wyoming 67

Western Nebraska led 37-27 at halftime, but Central Wyoming made a couple of charges to close within a single-digit deficit. The Cougars held off the Rustlers for the victory.

Jervay Green led WNCC with 35 points and Trent Harris scored 14. Broc Finstuen led the Rustlers with 19, followed by Irshaad Hunte with 16 and Devon Colley with 11.

No. 16 Sheridan 90, Lamar 73

The Generals led 44-37 at halftime and they pulled away in the second half, outscoring the Runnin' Lopes 48-36.

Ladan Ricketts led Sheridan with 22 points, followed by Camron Reece with 21, A.J. Bramah with 18, Channel Banks with 16 and Josh Bagley with 10,

Sam Boone led Lamar with 32 points. Richard Caldwell scored 20 and Aaris Bonds scored 12.

Sheridan will play Western Nebraska in the other semifinal today at 5 p.m.