Round two between Bellevue West and Omaha Creighton Prep lived up to the considerable hype and then some, but despite Prep’s best effort the Thunderbirds pulled out a 79-77 win in overtime.
Here are five thoughts on the battle between two of the state’s best.
Mama There Goes That Man
The legend of Chucky Hepburn continues to grow.
The future Wisconsin point guard’s list of big plays and big moments is extensive, and through three quarters it didn’t look like Saturday was going to add to it. Prep led 48-41 and Hepburn had scored 10 points on 3-of-8 from the field and 4-of-6 from the foul line.
More than anyone I’ve ever covered, though, Hepburn just refuses to let his team lose. He exploded for 17 points in the fourth quarter alone and five more in overtime, then capped it off with the go-ahead assist to Josiah Dotzler late in the extra period. He hit four 3-pointers in the fourth including a go-ahead triple with less than a minute to play.
Hepburn finished with 32 points on 10-of-20 shooting (4-of-10 from 3). He only shot 8-of-14 from the foul line and had an uncharacteristic six turnovers, but he also grabbed eight rebounds, dished out seven assists and stepped up late when his team needed him the most.
This came on the heels of his triple-double in Bellevue West’s big win at Millard North on Friday night. Hepburn finished with 21 points on 6-of-12 shooting (3-of-6 from 3) and 6-of-7 from the line, 12 rebounds, 11 assists, two steals and just one turnover. This also happened.
By far my favorite part of the game came with 5:59 left in Q4 & Prep was ahead 54-43…
…Guy in the Prep student section yells “Chucky Can’t Shoot!” (Volume ⬆️)
— FauxCoachWoodard (@FauxCoachWoodar) January 31, 2021
Don’t bet against Hepburn. It won’t go well for you.
Hepburn stole the show, and Bellevue West sophomore Josiah Dotzler had a big stretch in the second quarter and made some key plays in overtime, but Creighton Prep’s backcourt is pretty spectacular as well.
Through the first three quarters, I thought Prep senior Justin Sitti was winning the point guard battle. He was the primary defender on Hepburn and did a good job of steering him into the help defense and making passing angles difficult. Sitti finished with 21 points on 7-of-10 from the field (3-of-3 from deep), 4-of-9 from the free-throw line, seven rebounds, three assists and a steal. He’s headed to Morningside next year.
His backcourt partner, Brendan Buckley, did a great job of facilitating early and he came up big in the second half scoring-wise. Buckley finished with 16 points on 6-of-10 from the field, 3-of-5 from 3 and 1-of-2 from the line, six assists, four rebounds and two steals, and he was the primary defender early on Omaha signee Frankie Fidler, who scored just 11 points after going off for 30 in their first meeting. Buckley also hit a 3 with 4 seconds left — on a kick-out from Sitti — to tie the game up at 67-all and send it to overtime.
In the Zone
In the first meeting, Hepburn tore Prep’s defense apart, getting into the lane, drawing help and either hitting the cutter or kicking out for open 3s. The Junior Jays did a better job of slowing him down on Saturday, but Bellevue West still managed to erase an 11-point deficit to tie the game up at halftime. Hepburn scored six of the first eight points in the third quarter to give Bellevue West a 41-37 lead, then Coach Josh Luedtke made some adjustments — namely, switching to an extended 2-3.
Prep has a lot of length as all five starters and their top two backups are all 6-foot-2 or taller, and their aggressiveness within the zone made things tough on Bellevue West. The Thunderbirds didn’t score the rest of the quarter, which allowed the Junior Jays to take that 48-41 lead into the fourth quarter. Prep pulled ahead 54-43 63 seconds into the fourth after a West turnover and breakaway slam by Sitti.
The Thunderbirds finally started to figure out the zone at that point, however, as Hepburn took over. He found the gaps in the zone and scored 15 of Bellevue West’s next 21 points to erase the deficit and make it anyone’s game.
Junior Junior Jays
Prep starts four seniors and one of their top subs is a senior as well. However, the Junior Jays have a pretty solid junior class as well.
Luke Jungers, a 6-foot-8 stretch forward and one of four players in the 2022 class who has received a Division I offer, is second on the team in scoring this season. He had an efficient game on Saturday with 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting (1-of-1 from deep) and 3-of-3 free-throw shooting before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. He’ll be the lead guy for Prep next season.
Casey O’Malley has been a nice offensive spark off the bench this season, averaging around six points. He struggled a bit on Saturday after a good start with a couple of tough layups, but he’s a very talented scorer who can really get downhill going to his dominant left hand.
With upperclassmen making some poor decisions in the third quarter, Luedtke turned to another junior in back-up point guard Martel Evans to give him some minutes. Evans has played in every game but hasn’t been a key contributor statistically. Luedtke trusted him in a big moment, though, and he came through. He played quite a bit in the third quarter then Luedtke stuck with him to start the fourth. He responded by drawing three fouls and hitting five of the six free throws plus he had the steal and assist that led to Sitti’s dunk.
Bellevue West went 2-0 in arguably the toughest two-game stretch anyone will play this season. The Thunderbirds went to Millard North and won 81-69 on Friday, then went to Prep and won there despite the quick turnaround.
Millard North has been No. 1 all season, and rightfully so, but I think it would be hard to put anyone else in that top spot after what the Thunderbirds just pulled off. The reigning champs are really, really good.
On the one hand, Saturday was a massive missed opportunity for Prep, catching Bellevue West on the back half of a back-to-back against the other two best teams in the state. The Thunderbirds played incredibly well on Friday and it’s hard to replicate that kind of effort on back-to-back days. The Junior jays had the Thunderbirds beat and let the game slip through their fingers.
That being said, count Prep out of the title hunt a your own risk. They showed on Saturday they have the pieces to compete with anyone they’ll face. The state tournament semifinals should be an absolute blast this season.