The top two teams in the state squared off on Friday night and No. 1 Millard North emerged from the Thunderdome victorious with a 70-60 win over No. 2 Bellevue West.
Here are five thoughts on how it went down.
Mr. Fourth Quarter
Bellevue West junior Chucky Hepburn and Wisconsin commit has earned a reputation of saving his best basketball for the fourth quarter as he’s come up big time and time again to carry the Thunderbirds to victory.
Hunter Sallis turned the tables on Friday, however. The two teams went into the final period knotted up at 51-all, but Sallis took over from there. Millard North opened the fourth with an 8-0 run with Sallis scoring six of them and the Mustangs never relinquished that lead. Sallis went 4-for-4 at the free-throw line down the stretch to help seal the win, finishing with 10 of his game-high 25 in the fourth quarter after a quiet third.
He shot 8-of-13 from the field and 9-of-9 from the line overall with four rebounds, two assists and two steals. The only nit to pick was his seven turnovers, and that is definitely something he needs to clean up moving forward, but overall it was another terrific performance by Sallis on a big stage.
The Big Threes
Millard North’s top three scorers — Sallis, Saint Thomas and Jasen Green — combine to average about 48 points per game. Bellevue West’s top three — Hepburn, Louis Fidler and Frankie Fidler — average about 45 points between them.
On Friday night, Millard North’s big three rose to the challenge while Bellevue West’s did not.
Thomas (a junior) and Green (a sophomore with an offer from Nebraska) scored 13 points apiece on a combined 10-of-15 from the field to go with Sallis’s 25. Green added four blocks while Thomas chipped in four boards, two steals and a block.
With his future coaching staff in the house (Greg Gard and his assistants dropped by Bellevue since the Badgers are playing at Nebraska on Saturday), Hepburn showed some flashes but overall just struggled against Millard North’s length. He led Bellevue West with 15 points but shot 5-of-17 from the field including 0-of-4 from 3. He had five rebounds, three assists and three steals but also turned the ball over seven times.
The Fidler brothers combined for 20 points on 8-of-23 from the field, 1-of-8 from 3 and 3-of-4 from the foul line. Bellevue West needs a lot more from that trio.
Battle of the Bigs
This game featured two of the best senior bigs in the state who also played together during the summer the last couple of years, and they both made an impact in their own way.
Stanford-bound Max Murrell often seems like an afterthought on offense for the Mustangs. On Friday, he had six points on four shot attempts. But Murrell is arguably the biggest defensive force in the state. He grabbed seven defensive boards and blocked two shots while altering countless others. There were several plays where Bellevue West guards saw Murrell coming and threw their bodies into him trying to take away his shot-blocking ability only to miss the shot as a result.
On the other side, John Shanklin put up a double-double for the Thunderbirds with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Eight of those boards were on the offensive end as Millard North’s bigs failed to find and box out the Black Hills State commit all game. The T-Birds grabbed five offensive rebounds in the third quarter alone with Shanklin leading the way and that, coupled with six Millard North turnovers, allowed them to tie the game up by the end of the period.
Freshman on the Rise
Freshman Josiah Dotzler, the younger brother of former Creighton point guard Josh Dotzler, has seen his playing time rise over the last five games and the production is following. He recorded his first career double-digit scoring game with 11 points in the thriller against Lincoln North Star last Saturday and followed that up with some nice contributions against the Mustangs.
Dotzler finished with 7 points on 2-of-6 shooting, three assists, two steals and a rebound. He finished once at the rim and hit one 3-pointer, and he had a big 3 in the fourth quarter just rim out. He also stole the ball and drew a foul on the other end, hitting both free throws to make it a six-point game with 1:42 to play.
Dotzler is one to keep an eye on in that 2023 class.
Looking Ahead to the Heartland Hoops Classic
Friday’s game was incredibly competitive and intense, but it was far from a clean game. If Millard North brings the same kind of attention to detail against IMG Academy on Saturday things could get ugly.
Millard North turned the ball over 17 times including seven by Sallis and five by Murrell. The Mustangs shot 2-of-10 from 3 with both makes coming from bigs (Green and junior back-up center Tyler Sandoval). Millard North also gave up 14 offensive rebounds including eight by Shanklin as mentioned above. If Millard North doesn’t clean things up in all three areas, they’re going to have a hard time keeping up with IMG Academy.
On the other side, Bellevue West shot 2-of-19 from 3 including 1-of-11 in the second half. That is definitely not a recipe for success against a team like Millard North who controls the paint better than anyone.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.