Millard North left the door open and Omaha Creighton Prep, led by senior point guard Justin Sitti, stormed through it to pull out a 76-75 win at the Stable on Thursday night.
Sitti scored the last four points of the game including the go-ahead free throws with 4.3 to go and Creighton Prep held on to knock off Millard North less than a week after the Mustangs took down perennial prep power Oak Hill Academy at the Heartland Hoops Classic.
Here are five thoughts on the game.
Party of Three
With everything last year’s Class A finalists brought back and the sheer amount of talent on the two teams including multiple Division I players, all season long most have seen Nebraska’s top class as something of a two-horse race with Millard North and Bellevue West on their own tier.
On Thursday night, the Junior Jays officially threw their hat into the ring. With the win, Prep improved to 19-2 on the season with both losses coming to Bellevue West, though both of those games were incredibly competitive and the second needed overtime to determine a winner.
Prep already had wins over Omaha Westside (twice), Papillion-La Vista (twice) and Millard West, three of the top-eight teams in the class, and now they can add a win over the Mustangs to that tally which pushes the Junior Jays ahead of Lincoln Pius X into third place in the wildcard points standings.
Prep has another big one on Saturday night as the Omaha Central Eagles will visit the Heider Center. A win there would put a nice little bow on top of a terrific regular season for the Junior Jays, who very much look the part of a contender as we head towards March.
Prep got off to a great start, Millard North rallied to take a two-point lead at halftime and the two sides battled thought the third with Prep pulling ahead 51-50 midway through the period.
Then Saint Thomas took over, hitting three 3s during a 12-0 Millard North run that gave the Mustangs an 11-point lead late in the third period. Prep looked to be in some serious trouble, but the Junior Jays weren’t fazed.
Prep got a pair of free throws from AJ Rollins and a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Mai’Jhe Wiley to cut the deficit down to six heading into the fourth. Millard North pulled ahead by eight early in the final quarter, but Prep responded with a 9-2 run to pull within one at 69-68 on a dunk by Sitti.
After a three-point play by Hunter Sallis, Prep scored four straight at the free-throw line to tie it at 72-all with 1:46 to go. Sallis put the Mustangs back in front with 90 seconds to play and Prep came up empty on the other end, misfiring on a corner 3. Prep fouled Sallis with 39.6 to play and he made the first free throw but missed the second, keeping the lead at one possession.
Prep worked the ball around until Sitti found a lane to the basket for a layup to cut it back to one, and the Junior Jays fouled Thomas with 14.9 on the clock to send him to the line. He missed the front end, Sitti took it to the rim again and drew a foul, calmly sinking both the put his team ahead with 4.3 to go.
Millard North got the ball to Sallis, but he didn’t get a shot off before the buzzer (even though the official ruled that he did, the ball was clearly still in his hand and the shot didn’t go in anyway).
Prep went 7-of-8 from the foul line in the fourth quarter and 21-of-23 overall. The Mustangs made their first three foul shots but missed the last two, allowing Prep to complete the comeback.
Sitti, a Morningside commit, scored six of his 15 in the fourth. He also had a game high six assists with just one turnover.
Sallis Stepping Up
Hunter Sallis, the 5-star senior for Millard North, has been on a tear recently. He finished with a game-high 27 points, 10 of which came in the second quarter when he took over to dig the Mustangs out of an early hole.
Over his last 10 games, Sallis is averaging 26.4 points on 62.4% from the field, 37.9% from 3 and 80.4% from the free-throw line, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 steals, 2.7 assists and 1.6 turnovers per game. That’s up from 20.3 points per game on 53.5% shooting (29.7% 3-point shooting) and 77.5% free-throw shooting along with 4.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game in Millard North’s first 13 games.
With Thomas scorching the nets from deep early in the season, Sallis was fine to sit back and be more of a playmaker (4.3 assists to 3.2 turnovers per game in the first 13), but as the Mustangs get ready to head into the postseason he’s really asserted himself as a dominant scorer.
Jungers is on Fire
Sallis isn’t the only one who has elevated his play in the last month. Luke Jungers, a 6-foot-9 junior at Creighton Prep, has been scorching the nets from everywhere on the court over his last seven games.
Jungers led the Juniors Jays with a career-high 22 points on Thursday, shooting 7-of-10 from the field, 3-of-4 from 3 and 5-of-5 from the free-throw line. He is now averaging 17.9 points on 72.4% from the field, 66.7% from 3 and 92.6% from the stripe over the last four weeks.
Jungers is scoring at all three levels, an impressive trait for someone at his size. He’s 16-of-24 from 3 during the stretch (and is a career 46% shooter during his two varsity seasons) and is also knocking down mid-range jumpers off the dribble. Jungers has also significantly improved his ability to finish inside, converting a key three-point play during the fourth quarter on Thursday night.
Jungers picked up offers from Tennessee Tech and Coastal Carolina after last summer, and with a strong 17U AAU season I’d expect plenty more schools to show interest.
Balance from Both Sides
Creighton Prep is a team defined by its balance with all five starters averaging between eight and 13 points, and although Jungers led the charge with 22 on Thursday, the Juniors Jays got major offensive contributions from up and down the lineup.
As I mentioned above, Sitti was terrific with 15 points and six assists. Brendan Buckley, who will join Sitti at Morningside next year, didn’t score after the first quarter but still finished with nine points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals.
Mai’Jhe Wiley, a senior guard, was quiet in the first half with three points on 1-of-4 shooting. He came alive in the third, however, stepping up his aggressiveness and scoring nine points with four free throws, a layup and a 3 to close out the quarter. He finished with 12 points and five assists.
AJ Rollins, the Nebraska football commit, came up big inside with 12 points on 4-of-6 from the field and 4-of-5 from the line including a clutch pair that tied the game with less than two minutes to play. Rollins added seven rebounds and three assists to his stat line.
In addition to Sallis’ 27 and 19 from Thomas, Millard North got solid production from its frontcourt. Jasen Green, a 2022 Nebraska target, finished with 14 points on 6-of-9 from the field (1-of-2 from 3) and 1-of-1 from the foul line with two steals and a block. Tyler Sandoval, a 6-foot-9 senior, chipped in 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting (1-of-2 from 3) and nine rebounds (four offensive).
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.