Norfolk gave Bellevue West all it could handle in the A-1 district final at the Thunderdome on Monday but in the end the Thunderbirds proved to be too much and punched their ticket to the state tournament with a 55-50 win.
Norfolk raced out to an 18-12 lead after one, Bellevue West took the lead 29-27 on a 3 just before halftime, Norfolk pulled ahead 38-27 after three and the Thunderbirds took control midway through the fourth and held on for the win.
Here are five thoughts on the game.
Nebraska target Chucky Hepburn didn’t have a great game. In fact, he played well below his normal standards, though he did step up in the clutch to close the game as usual. Hepburn scored seven points in the final period including a key sequence where he split a pair of free throws then stole the ball as Norfolk tried to bring it up the court and laid it in, giving West a 51-46 lead.
Even so, Hepburn finished with just 13 points on 3-of-8 from the field (0-of-3 from 3) and 7-of-12 from the free-throw line with three assists and four turnovers. Senior guard Nico Felici, the team’s second-leading scorer, was efficient with 15 points on 5-of-8 shooting including 10 points on 4-of-4 in the second quarter.
The key to the game was the production from Bellevue West’s centers. Senior Deng Jal tied Felici for game-high honors with a career-high-tying 15 points. Jal grabbed four offensive boards and converted two of them into put-backs, he finished once in transition for a three-point play and he shot 2-of-4 from the 3-point line at 6-foot-8.
Junior John Shanklin, also 6-foot-8, accounted for eight of Bellevue West’s 11 bench points for an effective two-handed center rotation. Shanklin hit all three of his field goals and two of his three free throws.
If Bellevue West is getting 21 points on 60 percent shooting out of its center position every game, the Thunderbirds are going to be tough to beat.
Conversely, Norfolk started five guys listed between 6-foot and 6-foot-2 and they brought three guys between 5-foot-11 and 6-foot-2 off the bench. Norfolk only has one player listed on its roster over 6-foot-3 and he didn’t even play against the Thunderbirds.
Even so, the Panthers went toe-to-toe with the Thunderbirds (with two players at 6-foot-4 and another at 6-foot-3 in addition to the two 6-foot-8 posts in their rotation). Norfolk played true positionless basketball, five-out offense with all five guys handling the ball, setting screens and making hard cuts. Six of the seven Panthers that played significant minutes recorded at least one assist led by Nebraska golf commit Luke Kluver’s four.
Coach Tony Siske did a great job of coming up with a way for his undersized roster to compete, and the players did a great job of executing and playing together against Bellevue West on Monday.
Depth Wins Out
Whereas Norfolk essentially went with a seven-and-a-half-man rotation, Bellevue West coach Doug Woodard went deep into his bench as he often does. Eleven different Thunderbirds took the floor as West subbed early and often.
The Thunderbirds used their depth to try to wear out Norfolk, using a fulllcourt press throughout the game. The press did produce a few turnovers, but the real reason for it was to make Norfolk work hard just to get the ball across halfcourt before it even started trying to create scoring opportunities.
Junior forward Greg Bryant, who wasn’t part of the regular rotation earlier in the season, saw plenty of time as a defensive sub, using his length to make thing tough on Norfolk. The Panthers got off to a quick start, but the Thunderbirds outlasted the Panthers and outscored them 18-12 in the fourth quarter to secure the win.
Strong Finish for One, Bright Future for Another
Norfolk started four seniors, and one of them in particular — Connor Clayton — didn’t quite look ready for his career to come to and end. He got the Panthers off to a quick start with six of their first 10 points and eight of their 18 first-quarter points, hitting all four of his shots. He went on to finish with a team-high 14 points, grabbed four boards, nabbed two steals and recorded one block and on assist as well. He’s a good athlete (also plays football and track for Norfolk) and converted a couple of tough buckets at the rim throughout the game.
Clayton wasn’t the only Panther that caught my eye, however. Junior guard Tyson Stelling scored nine points off the bench for the Panthers. He looked comfortable handling the ball in the face of pressure, had a couple of impressive takes to the basket and showed he could shoot from the perimeter as well (36 percent from 3 on the season). Norfolk is losing four starters and six seniors in total, but Stelling along with Cameron Eisenhauer, the team’s leading scorer and only non-senior starter, gives Siske a nice backcourt to build around for next season.
Both Fan Bases Brought It
Despite the dangerous road conditions in many parts of the metro and state, Monday’s game had a tremendous atmosphere as all district finals deserve.
It seems like half the city of Norfolk follows the basketball team no matter where it goes, and that was the case again on Monday with a large and loud section of fans in Norfolk maroon. Bellevue West always gets good support in the Thunderdome and Monday was no different. With a full day off from school to prepare, the student section (known as the Flock Squad) was deep and rowdy.
Both teams brought it on the court and their respective fan bases brought it in the stands as well. That’s what a district final should look like.
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.