The Omaha Central Eagles are flying high into the postseason, following up their big win at Millard North on Friday with a come-from-behind 79-77 win at Omaha Westside on Saturday, securing the No. 3 overall seed heading into district play.
Here are five thoughts on how it played out.
A Fitting End to the Season
This game was the official finale for the regular season in the Omaha Metro and it did not disappoint. Fans turned out from all over the place from Bellevue (Chucky Hepburn and teammates) to Lincoln (Donovan Williams and others) and everywhere in between including strong crowds from both schools in the game.
The atmosphere was great and both teams gave the fans plenty to cheer about. Stars on both sides showed up and the game went down to the wire.
Westside jumped out to an 11-4 lead to start the game, Central cut the deficit to one early in the second quarter, Westside responded with an 18-8 run and Teth Tut scored a put-back to make it 39-30 at halftime.
Central cut it to five midway through the third quarter before the Warriors ripped off an 11-2 run to take their biggest lead at 56-42. Central regrouped and cut it back to five with a 9-0 run before Westside took a 58-52 lead into the fourth quarter.
Central scored the first four points to cut it to two but once again Westside had an answer, putting together a 10-2 stretch to pull ahead 68-58. Then the Eagles scored 10 straight to tie it up with less than three minutes to play, setting up a classic finish.
The teams went bucket for bucket until three straight empty possessions (a turnover, a missed layup and a blocked 3) allowed the Eagles to take a five point lead with 18.4 to play, and Central held on from there.
Sophomore Steps Up
The Eagles had three seniors score in double figures, but it was a sophomore who swung things in the fourth quarter. PJ Davis finished with eight points, seven rebounds (five offensive), two steals and a block.
He scored six of his points in the fourth quarter including the go-ahead put-back with just over a minute to play, then a couple possessions late he fought over a screen and blocked a corner 3-point attempt that could have tied the game.
Davis shook off a slow start (0-for-5 from the field in the first three quarters) to finish strong and lead the Eagles to victory.
Tough Day at the Office
Latrell Wrightsell Jr. is one of the state’s toughest guards, averaging over 23 points this season. He set a new school record with 43 points in a win on Tuesday and followed that up with 37 points in Friday’s win at Millard North. Coaches from Bradley and South Dakota were in the gym for the second game and both schools offered him on Friday night.
Westside opened the game with sophomore Chandler Meeks, one of the best defensive guards in the 2022 class, matching up with Wrightsell, but Meeks picked up his second foul late in the first half and dealt with foul trouble all game.
So sophomore guard Reggie Thomas took over, and he defended Wrightsell about as well as I’ve seen from anyone this season. Thomas is only 5-foot-11 but he’s a terrific athlete who doesn’t back down from anyone, often matching up with power forwards as Westside rolls with four and five-guard lineups most of the time. He did a terrific job of staying attached to Wrightsell and fighting through screens off the ball, and he did a terrific job of moving his feet, staying in front and challenging without fouling.
Wrightsell still got his, finishing with 24 points, but eight of those points came at the free-throw line. All 12 of his free-throw attempts came in the second half with two coming from a technical foul and six coming from intentional fouling after the Eagles took the lead. With Thomas as the primary defender, Wrightsell shot 7-of-21 from the field including 5-of-17 inside the arc.
In addition to his work on defense, Thomas contributed 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting (2-of-2 from 3) and 2-of-2 from the line, four rebounds, two steals and two blocks,
Diew the Diew
Central coach Eric Behrens decided to match up with Westside’s small-ball unit, starting forward Teth Tut at the five with four guards around him. That moved 6-foot-8 center Deng Diew to the bench.
When Diew checked in, however, he made his presence felt. Westside didn’t play anyone over 6-foot-4, and Diew had a sizable advantage in strength in addition to height. Diew’s been quiet offensively recently but stepped up in a big moment with a season-high 15 points on 5-of-7 from the field and a perfect 5-of-5 from the foul line.
Westside’s biggest weakness is it’s lack of size, and Diew exploited that with a combination of post buckets and dump-off finishes after the guards drew his man. Central has a chance to take home a state title this season, and a big performance by Diew down in Lincoln to balance out the firepower of the backcourt could go a long way towards making that happen.
Saturday’s game featured a showdown of two of the best senior backcourts int he country, and all four players made a big impact. It was only right for the two pairs to square off against each other in their last regular season game as well considering all four played together during the summer all through high school for the OSA Crusaders.
In terms of overall play and scoring efficiency, I’d definitely give the nod to Westside’s duo of point guard PJ Ngambi and Omaha signee Jadin Booth.
Booth led all scorers with 28 points on 9-of-18 from the field, 4-of-10 from 3 and 6-of-7 from the free-throw line. He also had five rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block. Ngambi added 19 points on 8-of-12 from the field, 2-of-2 from 3 and 1-of-2 from the line with eight assists, two rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
As well as the pair played overall, they both struggled in the fourth quarter. Overall, Booth turned the ball over five times and Ngambi was credited with two giveaways, though I had him with four. Central turned up the heat with a full-court press and both players made some poor decisions down the stretch. Ngambi was 1-of-3 from the field in the fourth wile Booth was 2-of-6, missing both his 3-point attempts and a tough layup after the Eagles took the lead on Davis’s put-back.
On the other side, I already mentioned what Wrightsell did above — 24 points on 27 shooting possessions plus four turnovers. But he also led the Eagles with seven defensive rebounds and three steals. Point guard Max Polk scored 16 points but he did it on 8-of-16 shooting, missing all three of his 3-point attempts and failing to get to the free-throw line. He also had three assists and four turnovers.
But Wrightsell and Polk — who scored the game-winning layup at the buzzer in overtime to beat Millard North on Friday — scored 15 of their combined 40 points in the fourth quarter and made enough plays to carry the Eagles to victory.
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.