Two of the top teams in Class A faced off at the Thunderdome on Friday night, but without star point guard Chucky Hepburn, Bellevue West didn’t have enough firepower as Omaha South took control early and ran away with it in a 71-49 win.
Here are five thoughts on the game.
Omaha South won a state title last season primarily on the strength of of its dynamic backcourt, and three of the four guards who carried them are back this season and have taken a big step forward. Skyler Wilson, Jay Saunders and Tyrece Griggs are all averaging between 16 and 18 points through five games this season, and the trio nearly combined to outscore Bellevue West all by themselves.
Wilson, a 5-foot-11 combo-guard, led all scorers with 21 points on 7-of-12 from the field and 7-of-7 from the line, and he chipped in five boards, three assists and three steals. Saunders, a four-year varsity starter, had 16 points on 6-of-11 from the field and 3-of-5 from the line with six steals, five rebounds and two assists. Griggs, a multi-sport star who took a couple game-day visits to Nebraska during the football season, chipped in 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting with four steals, three rebounds and two assists.
As long as those three are in the lineup and at the top of their games, the Packers should have a chance in any game they play this season.
Chucky Hepburn’s Importance
The Thunderbirds had managed to get by with Wisconsin commit Chucky Hepburn on the bench in street clothes, but Bellevue West’s first loss of the season showed how important Hepburn is. Last season when Bellevue West took on Omaha South, Hepburn led the Thunderbirds to a 71-56 win with 22 points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Without him on Friday, Bellevue West didn’t even crack 50 points and shot 34.8% from the field. The T-Birds struggled to deal with South’s pressure defense and their offense bogged down. A lot of dribbling and some poor decision-making led to 17 turnovers, and when Bellevue West needed a bucket to stop a South run, no one really stepped up.
With Hepburn in the lineup, the Thunderbirds are a contender for the Class A crown. Without him, they’re a completely different team.
RaShawn McNeal-Lee Steps Up
The guards get most of the headlines for the Packers, but senior forward RaShawn McNeal-Lee came up big as well with a double-double against the Thunderbirds. He only missed one field goal all night on his way to 15 points and he also corralled 10 boards.
McNeal-Lee dealt with some offseason injury problems and he got off to a slow start this season, totaling 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting in his first four game. He’s somewhat undersized for a post at 6-foot-5, but he makes up for it by going hard all the time. He can be a difference-maker for the Packers if he can provide some frontcourt scoring to complement what the backcourt does.
Where’s the Defense?
Bellevue West’s offense was pretty dysfunctional, but Hepburn’s return will go a long way towards fixing that. Perhaps more troubling was the team’s defense. The Thunderbirds struggled mightily to guard the ball and keep the Packer guards out of the paint all game, and when the help defender rotated over to stop the drive McNeal-Lee was there to finish on the dump-off pass.
South converted nearly 75% of its shots inside the arc, offsetting a rough night from the perimeter (2-of-11). It’s going to be tough for the Thunderbirds to win against good teams with that kind of defensive effort.
Quick Turnaround for the T-Birds
Bellevue West is going to have to figure things out quickly or the T-Birds could be looking at back-to-back losses as they have a tough trip to Kearney on Saturday. Former Husker Drake Beranek is a terrific young coach and always has his Bearcats ready to go. Hepburn’s return will have to wait until after the moratorium, so Bellevue West needs someone to step up in the mean time.
Senior wing Louis Fidler was the only T-Bird in double figures against South with 13 points, but he’s not enough. His younger brother Frankie, a 6-foot-6 junior, had a rough night on Friday with just five points, all at the free-throw line. With a pair of Division I coaches (assistants from Omaha and South Dakota State) in the crowd, he missed all die of his field goal attempts. Outside of Hepburn, he’s the most skilled scorer on the team and will need to have a bounce-back game against the Bearcats to get a win.
Finally, John Shanklin, a 6-foot-8 senior who has signed to play at Division-II Black Hills State, had just six points on 3-of-6 shooting. The Thunderbirds need to get him the ball a lot more, and he needs to produce.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.