Photo Credit: Jacob Padilla

Five Thoughts on the Final Day of the Nebraska Prep Basketball Regular Season

February 19, 2023

The 2020-23 regular season in high school basketball came to an end on Saturday, and I closed things out with a double feature.

First, I watched Class B No. 9 Norris take down Class A Omaha Bryan in its own gym, 56-49.

Then, I watched Class A No. 6 Omaha Westside push No. 1 Bellevue West to overtime only for the Thunderbirds to pull it out, 80-78.

Here are five thoughts on the final day of prep hoops regular season action.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Going undefeated over the course of an entire season is an incredibly impressive feat. Bellevue West became only the second team to do so this season with its win on Saturday, finishing 24-0 to join Class C1 No. 2 Ogallala (23-0) in C2. 

Bellevue West has dominated all season, winning each of its first 23 games by double digits. The closest anybody had played them was an 11-point loss for Gretna on Jan. 19. Nineteen of their wins have been by 20-plus including six by 30-plus (three by 40-plus, two by 50-plus). The Thunderbirds have outscored teams 75.3 to 49.1 per game for an overage margin of 26.2. 

They have four wins over teams from other states (two from Iowa, one from Missouri and one from Maryland) and eight of their wins have come against other teams currently in the top 10. They went into the fourth quarter with No. 2 Millard North on Friday tied at 40-all and won that game by 20.

What Doug Woodard and his staff have done with this team has been remarkable. The Thunderbirds entered the season as the Clear No. 1 in the state, but to avoid any kind of real let-down or off day game is a testament to the team’s preparedness, mental toughness and talent. Even when they haven’t played their best, they’ve found ways to win because they are elite on both ends of the floor.

The job’s not done yet, however. Up to two district games and three state tournament games remain in front of the Thunderbirds as they march toward the perfect season.

Big-Time Plays by Big-Time Players for Bellevue West

Bellevue West had an answer every time Westside threatened to take control of the game and build a significant lead. After a slow start, the T-Birds closed the first quarter strong to take a two-point lead at the end of the period.

Westside pulled ahead by four, then Bellevue West closed the first half on a 9-0 run with three straight 3s while forcing four straight turnovers from Westside. The Warriors opened the third period with a 12-2 run, but Bellevue West rallied to take a one-point leading heading into the fourth.

Westside managed to rally from down five with just under two and a half to play to tie it with 2.5 remaining. Josiah Dotzler hit a shot at the end, but it was well after the buzzer. The Thunderbirds remained composed, however, and gave as good as they got in the extra period.

Overtime featured four lead changes capped by a go-ahead 3-pointer from junior Jaden Jackson with less than 25 seconds to play, and Westside’s 3 at the buzzer didn’t fall.

Dotzler, a Creighton signee, is the best player in the state, but he was pressing a bit on Saturday and shots weren’t falling at his normal rate. Even so, he hit a tough go-ahead step-back jumper in overtime then delivered the ball to Jackson on the shot that proved to be the game-winner. He finished with 18 points and six assists despite the off shooting night.

Jackson finished with 13 points while shooting 2-of-4 from 3 as Westside did a good job limiting his opportunities — until that last possession.

Those two have led the way for the Thunderbirds all season, but the difference on Saturday was the supporting cast.

Senior Concordia commit Jaxon Stueve had a team-high 21 points on 8-of-14 shooting including 3-of-4 from deep, and he hit both of his free throws. Junior point guard Eldon Turner chipped in 10 points on 3-of-5 from the field and 4-of-5 from the line while junior sniper Steven Poulicek added eight points off the bench including a pair of 3s in the third quarter.

Statement Showing from Westside

To reiterate, Westside is the only team to stay within single digits of of the Thunderbirds. Even when teams have managed to stay close with Bellevue West (Gretna, Millard North), the T-Birds have hit them with a big run in the fourth quarter to pull away.

Westside didn’t let that run happen. Every time Bellevue West made a push in that game, Westside answered. Even more impressive is the fact that they did it without their fourth-leading scorer and tallest rotation player in senior Kevin Brown Jr., who was sidelined by a knee injury.

Tate Odvody scored a game-high 25 points on 10-of-14 from the field (4-of-6 from 3) and 1-of-2 from the free-throw line. He got the team off to a good start with six of Westside’s first eight points, and he poured in 10 points during the third quarter as well.

Junior Kevin Stubblefield is a tough matchup who put up 16 points on 7-of-12 shooting and 2-of-2 from the line with nine rebounds. Junior point guard CJ Mitchell shot well from 3 (3-for-5) to finish with 12 points and six assists.

Westside also had to deal with significant foul trouble to a key player in junior guard Caleb Benning. He picked up his third foul with 3:10 to go in the first half in the middle of Westside’s run, and Bellevue West took advantage with the 9-0 run to end the half with him on the bench.

Benning picked up his fourth foul less than 90 seconds into the third quarter and had to spend most of the period on the bench. However, he managed to play without fouling the rest of the way and put up nine of his 15 points in the fourth quarter. He shot 2-of-4 from the field with a 3 and went 10-for-12 from the foul line in the game, and he’s also the team’s best defender. A little better luck with the whistle and the game could have turned out differently.

Westside went through a rough patch midway through the season, but the Warriors rebounded to win five of their last six heading into Saturday. Though Westside didn’t get the win, if it can replicate that level of play moving forward, a deep postseason run is very much in play.

Norris Making Some Noise

The Titans from Class B made a jump to Class A in their third game of the season, and it didn’t go well. Norris lost 64-45 at Papillion-La Vista South.

They closed out the season against another Class A team — while playing with a shot clock — and showed their growth, taking it to the Bears early and holding on late to finish on a high note.

Norris was facing a significant disadvantage in terms of size as Bryan starts 6-foot-6 senior Mat Tut, 6-foot-7 junior Rylan Rodriguez and 6-foot-8 sophomore A’mare Bynum and Norris doesn’t have anyone over 6-foot-4. Bryan’s length gave Norris plenty of problems trying to finish at the rim and the Bears recorded 10 blocks.

However, Norris made up for that with extreme hustle, corralling 14 offensive rebounds (including 10 in the first half as they pushed the lead as high as 20), many of which led to second-chance points. Chris Garner Jr., a 6-foot-2 freshman, grabbed six offensive rebounds by himself and finished with 12 points and nine boards.

Norris also earned a significant edge from the 3-point line, shooting 7-for-17 as a team while Bryan went just 2-for-17. Sophomore Barret Boesiger hit five of those 3s himself and finished with a game-high 20 points. He exploded for 11 points in the first quarter as Norris raced out to a 22-7 lead, then after going scoreless in the second and third quarters, he stepped up again in the fourth with two huge 3s to help quell Bryan’s comeback attempt.

Five of Norris’ top seven on Saturday were freshmen or sophomores, which points to a bright future for the Titans. Sophomore Josh Bornschlegl came up big off the bench with 11 points on 5-for-7 shooting (1-for-2 from 3) and three assists.

Saturday was also the 200th career win for Norris coach Jimmy Motz. The Lincoln Northeast product and former Creighton hooper has made stops at Sterling, Central City and Columbus and is in his third year with the Titans.

Hibernating Bears?

The shot selection, open looks for Norris and lack of defensive rebounding point to a Bryan team that might have been overlooking their final regular season opponent with district play coming up.

Bryan dug itself too big of a hole in the first half, but the second half shows what the Bears are capable of defensively with their length. They forced 12 turnovers and held Norris to 5-for-13 shooting in the second half. However, Bryan couldn’t find enough offense to dig itself all the way out of its 16-point halftime deficit as six points wad the closest they got in the fourth.

Bryan has two of the most promising players in the 2025 class in Bynum (11 points, seven rebounds, five blocks and two steals) and 6-foot-4 guard Amir Martin (15 points, four steals) to build around moving forward, but Bears will need to be locked in from the opening tip if they want to keep this season going.

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