Photo Credit: John Peterson

State Tournament Notebook: Putting a Bow on the Basketball Season

March 18, 2021

This year’s boys basketball state tournament had it all: tournament records, buzzer-beaters, game-winners, great individual performances and instant classic games.

Hail Varsity was there to watch all of the action at Pinnacle Bank Arena, and we provided coverage of all of the games from the quarterfinals (Tuesday and Wednesday), semifinals (Thursday and Friday) and finals. To put a bow on the 2020–21 high school basketball season, here are a few more storylines that we didn’t cover in our round-ups.

A-Plus Performances

The top of Class A has never been better, and I think the way the semifinals and final played out proved that without a shadow of a doubt.

The Millard North and Bellevue West battle in the Metro Holiday Tournament championship game back in early January was as good a high school game as I’d ever seen to that point. Then the state semifinal battle between Bellevue West and Omaha Creighton Prep last Friday took the game to a whole new level.

Chucky Hepburn, Frankie Fidler, Josiah Dotzler, William Kyle III, Brendan Buckley, AJ Rollins Justin Sitti, Mai’Jhe Wiley… So many guys stepped up and made huge plays throughout that triple-overtime clash. Prep had that game won a few different times, yet Hepburn refused to let the Thunderbirds lose and brought them back every time.

As for Prep, the senior backcourt of Buckley and Sitti were terrific in the second half. Sitti overcame first-half foul trouble to make some big plays down the stretch, and Buckley went off in the third quarter for a season-high in scoring. AJ Rollins, the Nebraska football commit, dropped a monster performance in his final basketball game as well.

The most impressive part of that game, however, is the circumstances under which the Junior Jays had to play. Read Coach Josh Luedtke’s message here.

About 18 hours after that knockdown, drag-out fight of a game, the Thunderbirds had to gear up again to take on the mighty Mustangs for the third time.

The championship game didn’t need three overtimes to decide a winner, but it did need one, and the third quarter was the best eight minutes of high school basketball I’ve seen. Bellevue West won the period 29-23. The teams shot a combined 73.3% from the field. Half the buckets were assisted, while the other half were self-created. We saw dunks, 3s, crafty finishes and whatever you want to call that ridiculous buzzer-beater by Jadin Johnson.

Speaking of Johnson, he ended up being the difference in that game. After fouling out and hardly playing at all in last year’s championship game collapse, Johnson scored a career-high 24 points (at least his high as a Mustang; he spent his first two years at Abraham Lincoln in Council Bluffs).

It’s hard to believe last Saturday was the last time I’ll get to see Chucky Hepburn and Hunter Sallis face off on a high school court. It’s fitting that they both finished with 25 points, and while Hepburn closing out his legendary career with another state title would have been cool to see, I’m glad Sallis was able to win and get a title for Millard North.

Feels Like Home

The cool thing about the state tournament is it allows teams to play at Pinnacle Bank Arena, one of the two most prominent basketball arenas in Nebraska. For two players in particular, that opportunity meant even more.

Pius X Thunderbolts Sam Hoiberg (2) makes a layup against Millard West Wildcats Evan Meyersick (40). Photo by John S. Peterson.

When Fred Hoiberg accepted the Nebraska coaching job, it meant a new start for his family as well, including his twin sons Sam and Charlie. They enrolled at Lincoln Pius X last year and played a big role for the Thunderbolts right away. However, Pius fell in districts and failed to qualify for the state tournament.

This season, Pius was a top-five team all year with the Hoibergs leading the team in scoring, and though the Bolts fell again in the district final, they earned the Class A wildcard spot as the No. 4 seed. That meant Sam and Charlie got the chance to play on the same court on which their dad coaches, even if Fred himself couldn’t be there as the Huskers were in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Tournament.

Pius went one-and-done, losing to No. 5 Millard West on a buzzer-beater in the first round, but it’s still an experience the Hoiberg twins will never forget.

“It really meant a lot and was an incredible experience playing on the court where our dad coaches,” Sam Hoiberg told Hail Varsity. “We’ve watched him coach in arenas like this so many times and it’s been a dream of ours to play in one. The game didn’t go how we wanted it to but it’s still an experience that we’ll never forget. Charlie will always remember that his last game was played where our dad coached and for me it was a look at a place I could potentially be playing at in a year.”

Charlie isn’t looking to play basketball at the next level, but that’s not the case for Sam. Their older brother, Jack, is a walk-on at Michigan State, and Sam could choose to go that route as well, perhaps even at Nebraska.

Future Huskers Show Out

That game-winner against Pius I mentioned above? It was Nebraska football walk-on commit Evan Meyersick who was responsible for it.

The 6-foot-5 forward delivered in the semifinals against Millard North as well. The Wildcats didn’t get the win, but they certainly pushed the Mustangs and Meyersick led the team with 15 points and four assists, converting seven of his eight shots against Millard North’s big front line.

Creighton Prep forward AJ Rollins (11) drives to the basket against Bellevue West. Photo by John S. Peterson.

I mentioned AJ Rollins above as well. He went out with his best performance as a Junior Jay, finishing with 22 points (tying his career high) on 10-of-15 shooting, 12 rebounds, five assists (tying his career high), two blocks and a handful of other altered shots.

Meyersick and Rollins were two of the best basketball players in their class in middle school, and they played summer ball together with the OSA Crusaders for two years. However, they topped out at 6-foot-5 and 6-foot-6, respectively, and as post players their next-level prospects weren’t strong. Their size and athleticism transferred very well to the football field, however, and before long it became clear that was the path they would take. Still, for two guys that have played basketball at a high level for a long time, it was cool to see them go out playing their best.

The football commits weren’t the only future Huskers in the tournament. Will Bolt had four of his baseball commits in the field as well.

Norris senior CJ Hood and Elkhorn senior Drew Christo both start for their basketball teams, just like they star for their football and baseball teams. The three-sport stars have had many battles throughout their careers, and they got to face off against each other one last time in the Class B semifinals. Elkhorn played a 1-3-1 zone, but Norris went man-to-man and Hood matched up with Christo, producing a battle inside that was fun to watch.

Elkhorn center Drew Christo (35) drives to the basket against Norris forward CJ Hood (2). Photo by John S. Peterson.

“CJ’s a great friend of mine, obviously a future teammate next year down at Nebraska,” Christo told Hail Varsity. “We both love competition. Obviously we both play the three sports, so any time we can we’re going to go out and compete and it makes it better that we get to do it against each other.”

Christo got the better of Hood in that game after Norris beat Elkhorn twice in the regular season, sending the Antlers on to the Class B championship game. Christo wasn’t the only Nebraska baseball commit on the roster either, as Kyler Randazzo was Christo’s primary back-up in the post.

Elkhorn, who won a football state title this season, fell just short of adding a basketball one to the trophy case as the Antlers fell to Beatrice in overtime in the title game. That meant Tucker Timmerman, a 2023 Nebraska commit and starter for Beatrice, did end his season on a win. Timmerman only scored two points in the game, but one of the came in overtime as he split a pair of free throws to put the Orangemen up four with 36 seconds left, which proved significant when Elkhorn hit a 3 10 seconds later.

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