By GREG SCELLIN
A last minute addition to the NSAA State Class D-2 Basketball Tournament, Exeter-Milligan wasted little time making its trip to Lincoln an enjoyable one by upending Sandhills/Thedford 44-41 in the tournament’s opening round. Unfortunately for the Timberwolves, the rest of their time at state wasn’t as exciting with losses to eventual State Champion Falls City Sacred Heart, 45-26, and to last year’s state runners-up and 2015 D-1 State Champion St. Mary’s, 49-38, in the tournament’s third-place game.
But, first things first, wildcard E-M, coming off a 16-day lay-off, rallied past S/T on Thursday at Lincoln North Star in dramatic fashion.
Both teams struggled early on turning the ball over and shooting poorly in the first half. S/T was up 14-9 at one point before E-M trimmed the lead to 18-16 at the break despite 17 turnovers and an 0-for-9 performance from behind the 3-point arc.
“We showed the affects of being off 16 days at first,” E-M coach Jackson Krejci said. “We also haven’t been to state in five years. We switched some press breaks. We also started to mix up our defenses better in the second half.”
The Timberwolves clawed their way back and led the contest 30-28 after three periods of play.
After a Katherine White trey, E-M was up seven at 35-28 with 6:53 to play in the game. But the 21-4 Lady Knights then went on an 8-3 run to trail just 38-36 three minutes later. A dribble drive baseline jumper had S/T up 40-38 with 1:33 left.
Timberwolf Hailey Luzum nailed a trifecta 40 seconds later to put E-M back up by one, 41-40. After a wild last minute, junior post Tara Mueller snagged a rebound and was fouled with six seconds left. Mueller calmly sank both charity tosses to push the final score to 44-41. The Lady Knights were unable to get off a last-second shot.
“Hailey (Luzum) has been battling to start this season and has been putting in good effort for us,” Krejci said. “I’m glad she stayed with it. But that shot, that’s what a senior should do and I’m very happy for her.”
White and Hannah Beethe both scored 11 for E-M. Sydney Hall added eight points and nine rebounds. Mueller scored seven points and Luzum added five. Kate Jansky canned a pair of free throws. The Timberwolves shot 36 percent from the floor (17-for-46) and outrebounded the much taller S/T 36-22.
“I’m very happy with the girls’ effort,” Krejci said. “They were tenacious on the boards…hustled after loose balls…did all the little things well. I thought if we could push the ball and try to get them gassed, it would work out for us because they only play six girls. Our bench advantage was huge in this game. It was awesome to see our kids stick with it and battle to the end.”
Next up in the bracket for E-M was the juggernaut known as FCSH. The top-seeded Irish entered the Friday night contest at the Bob Devaney Sports Center 25-1 with only one loss—and that was to eventual Class C-2 State runner-up Diller-Odell. FCSH was the Class D-2 State Champion in 2015.
The Irish wasted little time flexing its muscles and held E-M scoreless in the first period, 15-0. FCSH would go on to lead the contest 23-7 at intermission. The Timberwolves played much more even in the second half en route to the 45-26 set back.
White scored 15 of E-M’s 26 points. Hall added six points and Mueller and Samantha Horne scored two each. Beethe sank a free throw.
E-M shot just 21 percent for the game (9-for-41) and just 17 percent (3-for-17) from 3-point land. The Timberwolves were a solid 5-for-8 from the charity stripe. Rebounds were nearly even, 27-24, FCSH. E-M turned the ball over 11 times in the semi-final loss.
In its final contest in Lincoln, the Timberwolves drew tradition-rich St. Mary’s in the third-place game at Lincoln Southwest High School. The Cardinals were playing in their seventh state tournament—having made the D-1 or D-2 State final three of the last four years. St. Mary’s entered the game with four senior starters all averaging between 8.4 and 13.7 points per contest.
Despite giving up the large experience factor, E-M led the contest 11-10 after the first quarter. St. Mary’s ended the second period on a 9-1 run to lead 23-19 at halftime. Timberwolves Hall and Beethe both picked up two fouls early in the second period.
The 22-5 Cardinals opened up a 10-point lead midway through the third quarter and led the consolation final 38-28 after three periods. E-M was unable to get the St. Mary’s lead down to single digits the rest of the way before falling 49-38.
White, who scored 38 points in Lincoln, again paced the Timberwolf offense on Saturday afternoon with 12 points. Hall added eight points and Beethe had seven. Jansky scored four points and Anna Sluka had three. Horne and Kayla Geiger completed the scoring with two points each.
E-M was just 8-for-20 (40 percent) from the free throw line. The Timberwolves shot 37 percent (14-for-37) from the floor and 2-for-8 from beyond the 3-point arc. St. Marys’ owned the glass, 29-24, and forced 17 E-M turnovers. Hall would end up fouling out of the contest.
“We had decided we were going to roll with Sydney (Hall) despite the four fouls,” Krejci said. “We missed so many free throws. We just didn’t shoot the ball well. We also didn’t take care of the basketball like we can. We lost to two very good teams down here.”
Seniors on this year’s 19-8 squad were Horne, Hall, Giada Miniussi and Luzum. Starters White and Beethe will be joined by Mueller, Jansky and Sluka next season.
“We got here, and that’s the main thing,” Krejci said. “Lots of teams would die to be in this spot. We’re just happy to be able to play in the last game of the year.”