Monday night provided plenty of excitement as teams across Nebraska punched their tickets to the 2023 Boys State Basketball Championship.
I watched Elkhorn South pull out a 53-49 win against Papillion-La Vista South to claim the A-7 district title, but there were plenty of other notable results throughout the state.
Here are five thoughts on a wild day of district finals.
The A-7 district final featured the seventh No. 1 seed against the first No. 2 seed, a true toss-up matchup, and because of other results changing wildcard points, it was a true elimination game no matter what happened with the higher seeds.
The two South squads did not face each other during the regular season, providing us with a new match-up that went down to the wire. The first half was a slog as both teams struggled to get shots to fall, shooting a combined 28% from the field. Elkhorn South used a 12-0 run to take a 21-16 lead into halftime.
The offense picked up in the second half, however, with both teams shooting 55% from the field. The Titans knocked down three 3s in the third quarter to make it a one-point game heading into the fourth.
The Storm stretched the lead out to seven, the Titans trimmed it down to one with just under two minutes to play and Elkhorn South shut out Papio South the rest of the way to hold on for the win.
Jackson Moeller-Swan scored the first Storm bucket then assisted the next five. He finished with 11 points, eight assists, two steals and zero turnovers.
Alec Noonan, a Midland commit, led the way with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting including an important 3 in the fourth quarter.
Evan Werner missed five of his first six shots before stepping up in the clutch with a 3 and a floater.
Gavin Hornbacher dealt with foul trouble throughout but found his way to the basket for a couple of layups in the fourth off great man and ball movement and secured a key defensive rebound.
Caden Stone shrugged off an ice-cold shooting game to grab two key offensive rebounds and go 3-for-4 at the foul line in the last 35 seconds to seal the victory, finishing with 10 points and five boards.
Those five seniors have accounted for 80.7% of the team’s points, 66.5% of the team’s rebounds, 76.3% of the team’s assists and 84.2% of the team’s steals this season. Noonan and Moeller-Swan were returning starters while the other three played limited minutes. The Storm went 16-9 last season and made the state tournament but lost six seniors including its leading scorer in current Nebraska walk-on Henry Burt. Head coach Nolan Reilly also stopped down.
This year, Elkhorn South alumnus JJ Zumbrennen took over for his first head coaching job and has led an undersized squad featuring just two players with extensive varsity experience to a No. Seed in districts and back to the state tournament.
Credit to Zumbrennen and that senior class for a terrific season that isn’t quite done just yet.
Lincoln, Sand Up
The fantastic season for the schools in Lincoln continued on Monday. Just one Lincoln school — A-5 No. 1 Lincoln East — hosted a district final. Yet when the state tournament tips off next week, at least three Lincoln schools will be in the field (with a fourth potentially joining them).
The A-5 district featured two Lincoln teams in East and Southwest, and the top-seeded Spartans used a 24-15 third quarter to take control and held on in the fourth to punch their ticket to the dance. Junior Carter Mick was spectacular with 24 points, five assists, four rebounds and four steals while senior Christian Melessa dropped a double-double with 19 points and 11 rebounds.
To get any more Lincoln teams through required upsets, and that’s exactly what happened.
Lincoln North Star traveled to Gretna for the A-3 district final. The Gators gave the Dragons all they could handle late in the season, falling 59-57 as a potential game-winning 3 at the buzzer didn’t fall on Feb. 4. This time, North Star finished the job, scoring the last five points to pull out a 48-43 win.
Senior Antallah Sandlin’el led everyone with 19 points, eight rebounds and four blocks while sophomore guard Lazerek Houston chipped in 12 points. More importantly, the Gators held Gretna’s dynamic junior backcourt of Landon Pokorski and Alex Wilcoxson to 14 points on 4-for-20 shooting including 0-for-9 from 3 just a few weeks after the duo combined for 40 in the Gretna win.
After North Star finished 9-15 last season, former Husker Lee Steinbrook took over as head coach and has guided the Navigators back to the state tournament for the first time since 2019.
Gretna claimed the wildcard spot in Class A, so the Dragons live to fight another day.
Finally, Lincoln Southeast also avenged a regular season loss by going to the Heider Center and taking down A-4’s top seed, Omaha Creighton Prep. The Junior Jays won the first meeting, 58-53, and led 25-22 at halftime on Monday.
However, a dominant defensive effort in the second half allowed the Knights to surge ahead and they held on late as Prep couldn’t get anything to go down until the game was more or less decided.
Senior Bangot Dak led the way with 11 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks while sophomore guard Mari Shucker chipped in 10 points and four steals. The Knights held Prep to 33.3% shooting with just 13 made field goals all night.
Only one Class A district final remains: Lincoln High will travel to Omaha Westside in the A-6 district final Tuesday night.
Top Two Seeds Take Care of Business in A
Bellevue West got off to a good start and finished strong to hand Lincoln Northeast a 68-43 loss in the A-1 district final, which means the Thunderbirds will head to Lincoln sporting a perfect 25-0 record with 24 double-digits wins.
Lincoln Northeast actually defended the Thunderbirds fairly well, but 17 offensive rebounds, Bellevue West’s depth and the T-Birds’ stifling defense were to much for the Rockets to overcome. Creighton commit Josiah Dotzler led the way with 15 points, junior Jaden Jackson added 14 points and five assists and sophomore Robby Garcia chipped in 13 points and six rebounds.
In A-2, Millard North put up 20 in three of the four quarters to beat Kearney 75-66. The Bearcats trailed by nine after three quarters before opening the fourth with a 6-0 run, but the Mustangs closed it out from there.
Junior point guard Elijah Gaeth went off for 27 points including five 3s, six rebounds and five assists.Senior Jacob Martin scored 16 points off he bench while sophomore Derek Rollins chipped in 15 points and eight rebounds.
Senior Jack Dahlgren put up 25 points and sophomore Ben Johnson nearly matched him with 23, but it wasn’t quite enough for the Bearcats to pull off the upset.
Norris’ Magical Run
The most impressive run to the state tournament arguably belongs to the Norris Titans in Class B. Norris was 14-9 heading into subdistrict play and as such had to hit the road.
First, they faced Beatrice at Crew in the subdistrict final. They won that game 42-39 on a go-ahead bucker from freshman Chris Garner Jr. (the son of a former Husker) with 32.4 remaining. After a turnover from Beatrice, the Titans added a free throw to create the final margin. Garner finished with 15 points (all in the second half), five rebounds, three steals, two assists and two blocks.
Then, they took on the host team in Crete, who has been one of the top teams in Class B all season. The Titans won 63-61 in overtime as sophomore Barret Boesiger (the cousin of Husker volleyball player Maisie Boesiger) hit a game-winning 3 with 2.4 remaining. He finished with 28 points including five 3s while Garner chipped in 14 points and six boards.
On Monday, Norris traveled to Omaha Roncalli for the No. 8 vs. No. 9 game in the district final round, and the Titans came up clutch once again. The Crimson Pride took a 38-36 lead with a steal and layup in the last 10 seconds, and Norris called a timeout.
Coach Jimmy Motz put the ball in Garner’s hands. He pushed it up the floor, drew an extra defender and found fellow freshman Macoy Folkerts on the left wing for a game-winning 3 at the buzzer. Garner finished with 18 points, 15 rebounds and four assists.
There games, three game-winners in the final 10 seconds, one ticket to the tournament for a very young Norris team that looks to be well ahead of scheduled. Five of the eight Titans that found their way into the stat sheet in the district final were freshmen or sophomores.
Small-School Standout Results
Finally, I wanted to highlight a couple of small-school results I found noteworthy.
First, congrats to Elkhorn Valley for securing its first ever state tournament appearance with a 71-53 win over Summerland. Senior point guard Brendyn Ollendick has been one of the best stat-stuffers in the entire state this season, averaging nearly 21 points, six assists and five rebounds, and he stepped up again with a big game in the district final. Ollendick finished with 26 points and 11 assists, his third double-digit assists game of the season the first of which was a triple-double).
Second, Central City is heading back to the state tournament for the first time in 76 years. The Bison took down Wayne 43-38 in the C1-7 district final at the Bison Dome Monday. The Blue Devils had made state three years straight, while the Bison hadn’t made it since 1947. Junior Ayden Zikmund has had a terrific season, leading Central City with 20.4 points per game.
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.