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March 9, 2013Here is my take on Saturday's finals of the 2013 Nebraska boys state basketball tournament, which are shaping up to give us some great - and different - final games...
Class A: Omaha Central (24-4) v. Papillion-LaVista (24-3). Note to self: Don't try to run with Omaha Central. Yesterday Benson did and paid a heavy price; the pay-off was the folks in attendance got the show they paid to see.
When Central got it going, and as the outcome was more and more decided, they turned up the stage lights and brought down the house. When Central gets a playmate like that you really get to see what type of athletes the team features, but you are also reminded how disciplined and trusting they are of one another.
It was fun to watch.
When considering Papio you have realize this team beat Central. And that matters; few teams over this near-decade span of Central dominance can enter such a big game with that much confidence.
There are other excellent players on the team but for my money as Spencer Lewis goes, so goes Papio. Tough, playing with an edge, he's the type of player who won't back down against the billion-time champs.
We all bow to Eric Behrens, who has built perhaps the most historic (remember all this media in today's world) in Nebraska prep history, but Papio also has a state finalist coach in Jason Ryan, who five years ago had his underdog Belle East team in the finals...against Papio.
Winner: Omaha Central. Duh.
Class B: South Sioux City (15-12) v. Scottsbluff (23-5). What did you dream about last night?
At my hotel, my room is surrounded by doors with little orange basketballs on them, all urging on South Sioux City basketball. "You're the best," and "Dominate the Day" the signs say. (At first, I thought maybe my mom had snuck into town and meant to put them on MY door but then I figured out what was going on...)
As it was, as a de facto South Sioux supporter, I couldn't help but think SSC head coach Terry Comstock might have been dreaming about our old friend Mike Gesell...and how he wasn't on this team. Neither was Austin Groth, neither was Jose Bonilla or any of the other key players who had helped SSC to three state finals, including two titles before last year's runner-up finish.
No, this is a different type of South Sioux City, much more blue collar, but senior Nathan Rogers did a pretty good Gesell imitation last night, scoring 31 to help the Cardinals to a thrilling 84-76 overtime win against favored Elkhorn South.
The record ain't pretty - even with two state tournament wins the Cards are just 15-12 - but this team has karma. And that counts for a lot.
Enough to beat Scottsbluff? Maybe. But the Bearcats have the look of a team that is bent on defending its title. That was a great win last night, 55-51 over red-hot Gretna - and you just get the feeling Scottsbluff won't take no for an answer today.
On the other hand, any chance SSC forgot this is a rematch of last year's final, one which killed its run of state titles? Me neither.
Class C-1: Wahoo (28-0) v. Boone Central/Newman Grove (22-6). Just like iron only becomes steel after some melding, so it is with great championship teams. Wahoo forged itself into that image yesterday, jumping to a huge lead and dominating Wayne early, only to back-peddle most of the second half and find itself with only a two-point, fourth-quarter lead and looking all pie-eyed.
Then Jonathan Abbott took over and made it all better. Abbott hit a clutch basket when the lead got its most narrow and finished with 30 points to lead the unbeaten Warriors to the C-1 state final at the Devaney Center. Somewhere, Bernie Inbody is smiling.
So should Wahoo head coach Kevin Scheef. His team is wonderfully athletic and very skilled - making all those clutch free throws late, when he arms are heavy and stakes are high didn't just happen - and on a quest, to finish as unbeaten state champs.
I loved seeing Kimball in the semifinals but the Longhorns' slipper didn't fit yesterday and they were overwhelmed by another athletic, deep team in Boone Central/Newman Grove. Toughened by a Mid-States Conference schedule, the Cardinals are in a state final, just like the football team was last November. Psst...keep an eye on Boone's Tyler Hedlund today. I'm just sayin'...
Class C-2: Sutton (27-1) v. Southern Valley (23-3). This just in - John Miller can coach.
If all those girls state basketball titles at Chambers weren't enough proof, maybe this is. Miller moved to Southern Valley last year, taking over a sleeping program with talented athletes, and built it into a state finalist, all in the blink of an eye.
Of course, it doesn't hurt to have a brilliant big man and the Eagles have that in 6-9 senior Spencer Kucera (PHOTO), which Freeman had no answer for in the semifinals, Kucera going off for 21 points in a 58-53 win. He will need to be that good again if the Eagles, great story or not, are to beat a driven, defensive-oriented Sutton team.
As an addendum to the earlier this just in - Sutton's Steve Spongberg can coach a little too. A state champion coach, he's has his team playing better defense than any other team in the tournament. Mix in a brilliant offensive weapon like senior Austan Rath and you have the pre-tournament favorite arriving to the finals right on time.
Worth noting, Sutton split two games with Freeman this year while Southern Valley, well, the Eagles beat Freeman yesterday.
Always great to see first-timers in the finals but, scarily for Sutton, I see Sutton winning...
Winner: In an upset, Southern Valley.
Class D-1: Paxton (27-0) v. Howells-Dodge (28-0). For one its been as easy as pie, for the other its been hard as a rock (nice mix of two worn out clich?there, thank you...) but we have our match-up of unbeaten teams in the D-1 final.
Howells-Dodge has crushed its first two foes, mixing in the strong work on the boards I expected, and adding some daring, ball-hawking defense which might well be the element that gives the Jaguars a state title in their first year as a combined program.
Howells-Dodge has so many different ways to beat you, so many contributors to the cause. Luke Hegemann has had a great tournament, Mat Gooch is a returning all-staters and the Jags have a lot of speed. Championship speed.
After wobbling out of the first round Paxton again took its time on Friday night, surging late to win a 38-36 victory over defending champion St. Mary's. For a team which had it so easy all regular season - 35 point average winning margin - the Tigers have shown remarkable pluck in these two tournament games.
Lots of fingers - and defensive game plans - point at Paxton all-stater Cody Corfield but in many ways senior Zach Morland seems to deliver in the clutch for this team. Will he do it again today? Will Corfield come to life on the offensive end of the floor?
Will somebody hand me that last croissant?
Class D-2: Spalding/Spalding Academy (25-2) v. Wynot (24-3). It's a statement about a school's athletic culture and commitment to the games they play.
Of course, having a talented 6-8 post doesn't hurt either.
Either way, the Wynot boys have taken the Wynot girls lead, reaching the D-2 state final one week after the Lady Blue Devils won their third straight state title. I was at Wynot's win over Sacred Heart in the semifinals, talking with WHS girls head coach Steve Wieseler, at their most desperate hour. (I am talking about Wynot's basketball team, which saw its fourth-quarter seven-point lead cut to one, not the Wieseler having to talk to me...)
Wynot held on against my pre-tournament favorite and now faces one of the best "surprise" teams in the tournament. Loaded with offensive weapons, as I have been telling folks Spalding/Spalding Academy plays basketball like it was in the '70s and '80s - lots of points, for both teams - with all that's missing is the short shorts those teams used to wear. (Speaking of desperate hours...)
There hasn't been a more entertaining quarter of basketball in this tournament that the first in yesterday's Spalding/SPA win over Leyton, but No. 1 seed Leyton ran out of gas. Spalding/SPA will need that same sort of high octane, tireless effort today if it is to win the program's first state title.
Winner: Spalding/Spalding Academy.