The top-seeded Omaha Creighton Prep Junior Jays survived a scare against the No. 16 seed Omaha Benson Bunnies in the first round of the Metro Holiday Tournament, pulling out a 76-70 win in overtime on Saturday morning.
Both offenses were firing on all cylinders at Ralston Arena as both teams shot just over 55 percent from the field with the Junior Jays shooting 10-of-24 from deep and the Bunnies a blistering 11-of-20.
Benson won the third quarter 25-18 after shooting 9-of-12 from the field including 6-of-8 from 3-point range. The fourth quarter was close throughout. Trailing by two with less than a minute to play, Prep got the ball inside to 2019 Nebraska commit Akol Arop and he evened the score.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) December 29, 2018
Benson held for the last shot and didn’t hit it, sending the game to overtime. A couple of 3-pointers early had the Junior Jays up by five with less than 2 minutes to play and Arop found himself open at the elbow off the catch. With no hesitation, the 6-foot-5 Arop rose up and knocked down the shot to make it a seven-point game.
“I told the coaches, ‘What is he doing?’ Then he hits the shot,” Prep coach Josh Luedtke said. “To me, I would have gone to the rim and tried to get a layup but he certainly had the confidence to pull the shot and that’s Akol — he believes he’s going to make every shot.”
Arop has a good reason to be confident. He’s been working on his perimeter skills to get ready to play more on the wing than in the post at Nebraska, and that work is starting the show up in games. He is 6-of-14 from 3 this season after going 3-of-14 all last season and he’s shooting a career-high 73.3 percent from the free-throw line.
“Lot of confidence,” Arop said. “In the summer, I’ve just been working on it the whole time. Just getting good looks, catch-and-shoot, it just feels good off my hand. It’s been great.”
He is averaging right around 22 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks on the year while shooting around 70 percent from the field. He’s got four double-doubles in seven games.
Arop has done most of the damage in his career posting up or rolling to the rim, but he’s stepping out on the perimeter and handling the ball a little more this season. Luedtke said there are still some moments where he “looks like a baby deer or a baby horse” when he gets going too fast, but the last three-and-a-half years of skill development with Arop is starting to show up in the games.
“He’s really come a long way since his freshman year,” Luedtke said. “He didn’t shoot any 3s tonight I don’t think but last time we played Benson he was 2-for-2 and looked good from the 3. When he’s in control and doesn’t try to do too much, I think he does a really good job.”
Creighton Prep only led by three at halftime after getting a combined eight points from its two leading scorers in Arop and senior Thomas Faber, a guard with several Division II offers. However, Arop put the team on his back after halftime, scoring 18 of his game-high 22 in the second half and overtime where he was 8-of-10 from the field and 2-of-3 from the free-throw line.
“That first half was really rough for me,” Arop said. “I got two early foul calls, I only had [four] points, I wasn’t really doing anything, I was just lackadaisical on the outside, just loafing around on the perimeter. I wasn’t really posting up that much, which I really do best. When we played them our first game I had 35 points and I went 12-for-12 on field goals and that was mainly just posting up and getting to the rim like how I usually do. That second half, after Coach told me in the locker room, ‘You’re not playing your game,’ I knew I wasn’t playing my game right. I had to step it up.”
That’s exactly what he did and as a result the Junior Jays are headed to the quarterfinals of the Metro Tournament on Wednesday. Creighton Prep is the last undefeated team remaining in Class A at 7-0 despite losing four starters and their sixth man from last year’s state championship team.
“I think him and Thomas have done a great job leading,” Luedtke said. “I think they both have accepted the responsibility. Then I think the other guys like Robert [Peters], Spencer [Schomers], Louis [Hacker] and Sam [Pickering], they’ve all done really good things — CJ [Wolfe]. They believe in these guys and they’ll follow them. But I tell Akol and Thomas all the time, if I can’t yell at the two best players on my team, I can’t yell at anybody. I gave it to them at halftime, Thomas and Akol, because they deserved it, and I think that helps Akol and Thomas see ‘Hey, we’ve got to play hard because if we play hard everybody else will follow us.’ They’ve done a great job.”
Nebraska’s coaches have been out and about this season in the Omaha Metro and Lincoln and have caught a couple of Arop’s games, which Arop said he appreciates.
“That was really great,” Arop said. “I love them see how I play, what I can work on next year for them. That’s good; I want them to come out to more games just to see, just to feel what kind of player I am because I know they watched me in the summer but I think I’ve gotten even better from the summer to now. It motivates me when they come, just to work hard, to do what I do best and play my game.”
One of those coaches is assistant Michael Lewis, the lead in-state recruiter on the staff.
“He’s a great guy,” Arop said about Lewis. “I have a great relationship with him. I met his wife and his kids, just great people, I met them this summer. Just a great guy.”
Arop said he’s been talking a bit with the other Nebraska commit in the state, 2020 Lincoln North Star guard Donovan Williams, though he hasn’t yet started the peer recruiting with 2021 guards Chucky Hepburn (Bellevue West) and Hunter Sallis (Millard North), both of whom hold offers from the Huskers, but that will come.
In the meantime, Arop is focused on leading his team to the Metro championship. Prep will play No, 8 seed Omaha South on Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. at Ralston Arena with the semis on Thursday and the final on Friday.
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.