All across the state, teams captured district titles and punched their tickets to the Class B State Tournament on Saturday.
I made stops at Omaha Roncalli, Bennington and Platteview to see three of the eight games in person.
Here are five thoughts on the day’s action.
Top Seeds Take Care of Business
No. 1 Omaha Skutt bounced back from its first loss of the season in the subdistrict final in a big way, making short work of No. 16 Gering with an 83-28 rout.
I started my day at Omaha Roncalli, catching the first half of the No. 2 Crimson Pride’s 52-27 win over No. 15 Crete. Roncalli struggled to knock down shots from the perimeter, but their pressure caused all kinds of problems for the Cardinals and led to easy buckets for the Pride. Jake Orr and Austin Schwarz set the tone like they have all season, outscoring Crete themselves in the first 15, 15-13. Junior Jabin Gardiner flashed for the Cardinals with a couple of impressive finishes at the basket, scoring seven of their 13.
Out west, No 3 Scottsbluff pulled away from No. 14 Seward in the second half for a 61-43 win behind 21 points from Tyler Harre and 16 from Austin Thyne.
Badgers Battle Back
With Roncalli appearing to be in control at halftime, I took off to catch the start of No. 11 Elkhorn at No. 5 Bennington. The Antlers put up a heck of a fight, leading by as much as eight in the first half, but Bennington rallied to pull ahead in the fourth quarter then hold on for the 44-39 win.
Junior Ethan Yungtum put the Antlers on his back. After Dyllan Bertucci opened the game with a 3, Yungtum scored the rest of Elkhorn’s first-half points. After scoring nine points in the first, he opened the second with a personal 8-0 run to give Elkhorn a 20-12 lead.
Bennington scored the last five points to make it a three-point game at halftime. Yungtum scored six of Elkhorn’s 10 in the third quarter as well. He went on to finish with a game- and career-high 25 points and also made an impact on the defensive end with four steals and three blocks. He only took two shots in the fourth, however, and the Antlers couldn’t quite keep pace with the Badgers.
Senior Austin Holtz got off to a good start with five points on 2-of-3 shooting in the first quarter, but he went ice-cold after that. Holtz is a tough-shot maker, but the shots weren’t going down on Saturday. He missed nine straight shots in the second and third quarters, and Elkhorn pulled ahead 24-20. Then the lid came off the rim and Holtz led a 10-6 finish to the period, knocking down a 3, converting a three-point play and then hitting a pull-up jumper to tie the game up at 30-all.
The hero of the fourth quarter was Seth Wempen, however, as the senior knocked down a pair of 3s to break a tie and give Bennington a 38-32 lead midway through the period. Dane Petersen hit four straight free throws to pull the Antlers within two, and Elkhorn had a chance for a tie after forcing a turnover, but the Antlers turned it back over with an offensive foul and Bennington went 4-for-4 at the line and added a layup in the final minute to secure the victory.
Holtz and Wempen led the Badgers with 13 points apiece while Wempen added six rebounds, four assists and four steals. Junior Trey Bird, Bennington’s second-leading scorer, played for the first time since spraining his ankle against Roncalli on Feb. 8, albeit briefly. Now he’ll get a full week off to get back closer to 100%.
It takes a special kind of talent to play relatively poorly and still go out and drop a 35 and 12, but that’s what Platteview junior Connor Millikan did on Saturday to lead the fourth-seeded Trojans to a 58-52 overtime win over No. 13 Aurora.
The state’s leading scorer missed his first five shots but still scored or assisted on Platteview’s first 19 points, leading the Trojans to a 22-15 lead at halftime. Aurora pulled within one, but Platteview closed the third period on a 10-2 run — including six from Millikan — to take a 38-29 lead into the fourth.
The Huskies opened the fourth quarter with a 13-3 run — including their first two 3s of the game — to take the lead, but Millikan answered quickly with a layup. Platteview led by three in the final minute and Chase Phillips — who hadn’t made a shot all game — knocked down a triple from the top of the key with 30 seconds left to tie it up at 46-all. Both teams got a shot off after that, but both missed, sending the game to overtime.
The extra period was all Platteview, however, as the Trojan opened with an 8-0 run (the first six scored by Millikan). Aurora’s first points came with 46.4 to go on another 3-pointer from Phillips, but the Trojans hit enough free throws to hold on.
Millikan added four assists to his 35 points and 12 rebounds, and he shot 17-of-21 from the free-throw line. Ezra Stewart was Platteview’s second-leading scorer with seven points.
Tate Nachtigal led Aurora with 17 points, though like Millikan he struggled from the field as the Platteview defense made him take a lot of shots to get his points. Carson Staehr added 13 points while Preston Ramaekers notched a double-double with 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting and 2-of-4 from the line and 10 rebounds (four offensive).
B-7 and B-8 Upsets
A 10 over a seven and a nine over an eight aren’t huge upsets, but the lower seed (and thus, the road team) did win in the B-7 and B-8 district finals.
First, No. 9 Waverly made the 350-mile trip out to the Panhandle to knock off No. 8 Sidney, 50-44. Waverly has had an up-and-down season, but the Vikings are heading back to state, and this time they’ll only have to travel about 10 miles to compete.
No. 10 Blair had to travel nearly as far as Waverly did as the Bears went to No. 7 McCook on Saturday, and they got the job done as well with a 58-57 win courtesy of a game-winning 3-pointer from Sawyer Lawton.
Down by 2 with 5.1 – Sawyer drills a 3 – Blair High School Basketball – both Girls and Boys headed to State pic.twitter.com/7OzcobJA6h
— John Lawton (@jklawton65) February 26, 2022
Blair made a miracle run through districts last year, knocking off Schuyler, Bennington and Alliance to book its trip to Lincoln with a .500 record on the year. This year’s team repeated the same feat, though the win over McCook improved the Bears to 15-9 on the year.
Field of Eight
The class B field is set: Omaha Skutt, Omaha Roncalli, Scottsbluff, Platteview, Beatrice, (the No. 5 seed who beat No. 12 York 58-42), Bennington, Waverly and Blair.
Five of those teams — Skutt, Platteview, Beatrice, Waverly and Blair — were in the tournament last season including the reigning state champions in the Orangemen.
Skutt likely enters the tournament as the prohibitive favorite at 22-1 on the season, but as the Crimson Pride showed in the district final, it won’t be a cakewalk for the SkyHawks.
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.