The Heartland Events Center in Grand Island hosted the annual Heartland Hoops Classic on Saturday. This year’s event included six games featuring 10 teams from various classes in Nebraska and two from out of state.
GAME 1: Grand Island Central Catholic 46, Elkhorn Valley 44
After leading throughout the second half, Grand Island Central Catholic found itself in a tie ball game with the clock winding down.
Central Catholic coach Tino Martinez put the ball in his freshman point guard’s hands and Braylon Wolfe delivered, getting to the free-throw line off the bounce before finding a cutting Thomas Birch for the game-winning layup at the buzzer.
“It was just two really good plays,” Martinez said. “The first was theirs, the kid made a huge shot. And then we came down, maintained composure and I think Braylon and Thomas, they just reacted well, kept their composure, Thomas made a great cut and Braylon had his eyes up. Just a great play by two pretty good players for us.”
Central Catholic led by two at the end of the first and second quarters then extended that lead out to nine with a 7-0 run to open the third quarter.
The Crusaders maintained their lead into the fourth, holding a 42-36 advantage midway through the period until the Falcons hit them with five straight to make it a one-point game.
Elkhorn Valley sent Wolfe to the foul line with less than a minute to play to stop the clock and the freshman buried both shots to make it a three-point game, but the Falcons got Kellyn Ollendick free for a 3-pointer and he knocked it down with about 25 seconds to play to tie the game, setting up the final sequence.
“We did a good job of building the lead,” Martinez said. “We didn’t play very well once we got up; I think we were up eight or nine twice and we let them back in it. That’s because they’re a pretty good team and they have a couple of weapons that are hard to guard. But I just didn’t think we executed well on either end of the floor … But perseverance in these types of games is what is what wins and I thought our kid persevered in those moments, but I think we need to be better in those moments as well.”
Birch finished with a game-high 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting (1-of-2 from 3) with an and-one to go with a game-high nine rebounds. Wolfe added 13 points on 3-of-7 from deep and 6-of-6 from the line with four assists.
Ollendick led Elkhorn Valley with 13 points on 4-of-8 from the field (1-of-3 from 3) and 4-of-5 from the line. Korbin Werner added 10 points on 3-of-6 from the field and 4-of-4 from the line, five rebounds and four assists.
Game 2: No. 3 Omaha Concordia 48, No. 6 Doniphan-Trumbull 46
The second game went down to the buzzer as well, but the Mustangs held on despite an incredible effort from Doniphan-Trumbull sophomore Jack Poppe at the buzzer.
Trailing by one with less than a minute to play, Concordia senior Carter Sunde dropped in a floater to put the Mustangs back in front. After an empty possession, the Cardinals sent Sunde to the line and he split the free throws to make it a two-point game. Jack Thrasher grabbed the offensive rebound off the miss, but Poppe ripped it out of his hands and nearly tossed it in from beyond halfcourt. However, the prayer came up just a bit short and the Mustangs secured their 20th win.
“They shoot the ball so dang well, all of them, and we’re talking like six, seven guys,” Concordia coach Ken Kulus said. “We could have done a lot better job getting out on their 3-ball. I think the end of it was just up being there; even when we fouled them we didn’t give them the 3. We were up far enough down the stretch that they didn’t get the clean looks that they were getting and that kind of changed the game.
“And then Quientan [McCafferty] came up with probably three huge plays. He had a dive on the floor, loose ball, that won’t show up in the stats. He had a steal where he dribbles up the court and instead of dribbling it out of bounds he jump-stops and finds a cutting Sunde and just big plays down the stretch by him, all-state-type plays.”
Concordia knocked down three straight 3s early in the second quarter to build an 11-point lead, but a strong defensive effort and Parker Volk’s sharp-shooting got the Cardinals back into the game in the third quarter.
Doniphan-Trumbull cut it to one heading into the fourth, and the teams traded the lead throughout the final period as neither side was able to create more than three points of separation.
Sunde scored all 11 of his points in the second half including seven in the fourth quarter to lead the Mustangs to victory.
“He’s a senior and he’s a big-time player,” Kulus said. “He’s had great moments like that in the state tournament and in our districts and stuff like that. So that’s kind of an expectation out of him and he’s such an explosive athlete. He got in the lane really well … He just did a great job down the stretch.”
Sophomore Drew Kulus led Concordia with 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting and chipped in four boards and two steals.
Volk led the Cardinals with 15 points on 5-of-8 from deep and five rebounds. Poppe, who was questionable at best heading into the day, made his return from an ankle injury and provided a big spark with 13 points, five rebounds, four assists, four blocks and three steals. Senior Jaden Williams added 12 points on 4-of-6 from the field (1-of-1 from 3) and 3-of-5 from the line plus five rebounds.
The game featured two of the top teams in C1 with a combined record of 37-2 heading in.
“It’s huge,” Coach Kulus said of the matchup. “Big arena; we’re going to play in a big arena [in March], we hope, and a big-time opponent, an opponent that’s probably going to be at the state tournament. This is what we want to see and this is the type of grinder game that we needed at this point.”
Game 3: B No. 1 Crete 68, C1 No. 5 Ogallala 58
The Indians gave Class B’s top team a battle in the first half, but the Cardinals hit them with two big runs to take the lead then seal the victory, improving to 20-0.
Sophomore Sawyer Smith put Ogallala on his back early and led his team to a two-point lead after the first and a three-point lead at halftime. The Indians scored the first five points of the third quarter as well.
However, Crete dug in and fired back with a 15-2 run to turn the tables and take the lead. Ogallala tied it up with the first bucket of the fourth quarter, but Crete again responded, scoring nine straight including six from senior Kenner Svitak to take control, and the Cardinals scored enough down the stretch to hold the Indians off.
“They threw a triangle-and-two at us and you try to practice that stuff, we expect some that coming, but when you get out and see it live it’s a little more difficult,” Crete coach Tony Siske said. “I just thought our guys that weren’t getting matched up on did much better in the second half finding holes and sticking shots as well. They’re capable shooters.”
After senior Aidan McDowell and junior Justus Gardiner did the heavy lifting offensively in the first three quarters, the supporting cast stepped up with eight fourth-quarter points from Svitak and a pair of big 3s from senior Reece Vertin. Vertin shot 3-of-4 from 3, all in the second half, to finish with nine points while Svitak finished with 15 points and five boards.
“It’s huge,” Siske said. “Theo Bholing came in and gave us five quick points in that run as well, and they’re all capable shooters. Kenner’s a 50% 3-point shooter and we’ll take him shooting anytime and he does a lot for us and a lot of times he kind of takes that secondary role, but he’s more than capable.”
McDowell led Crete with 19 points, shooting 8-of-10 from the foul line, and nine rebounds. Gardiner matched Svitak with 15 points, shooting 3-of-5 from deep and grabbing five boards.
Smith finished with a game-high 20 points, shooting 8-of-14 from the field including 2-of-5 from 3 and 2-of-2 from the line. He also had five boards and five assists. Ryan Gilmore chipped in 12 points on 100% shooting off the bench.
Game 4: Papillion-La Vista South 64, No. 9 Kearney 57
After dropping a rivalry game to Papillion-La Vista on Friday night, the Titans bounced back in a big way on Saturday with a strong fourth quarter, pulling away from the Bearcats late to get back in the win column.
The teams traded extended scoring runs in the first half (8-0 for Papio South, 15-3 for Kearney, 9-0 for Papio South) then the third quarter turned into a grinder. The result was a one-point game heading into the fourth.
Sophomore Jacob Webber hit a 3 midway through the fourth to put the Bearcats up 55-54, but the Titans responded with an 8-2 run including six points from junior Reece Kircher, all at the basket, to take a 62-57 lead with less than 30 seconds to play. Senior Wes Frost added a pair of free throws after a Kearney miss to create the final margin.
“We just had really good responses tonight, so much better than last night, and a lot of it is when shots fall,” Papio South coach Joel Hueser said. “It’s a make or miss game and we made a lot more shots than we missed in comparison to last night.
“I just thought Reece was good. Our turnovers were very low tonight, and maybe single digits. Reece was really good and he was able to get into some space and get to the rim and that just takes such a burden off of Bryson [Bhal] when they face-guard him like that, and then we had other kids have really good games for us tonight, too. I know Wes scored well, I know that Jayden [Herrera] hit some open shots … It was just a really good team win for us, and we needed it, just needed.”
Frost finished with a game-high 17 points on 6-of-9 from the field (3-of-5 from 3) and 2-of-2 from the line while grabbing five rebounds. Bahl scored 16 points on 4-of-5 shooting (3-of-4 from 3) and 5-of-6 from the stripe and grabbed a team-high six boards. Kircher finished with 14 points, five rebounds and four assists. Herrera added 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting including 2-of-5 from deep and five assists.
Ben Johnson notched a double-double with 16 points and 14 rebounds while Webber added 13 points and four boards, but the Titans held the Bearcats’ top two scorers to a combined 12-of-35 shooting as Kearney shot under 38% for the game.
“That’s all [Joe] Cooley and [Jim] Simpson, my assistants, Coach [Greg] Eaton and the kids,” Hueser said. “Especially in the second half I thought we really did a good job of kind of denying them and forced them in some tough shots.”
Senior Karter Lee scored 15 points on 6-of-11 from the field (3-of-7 from 3) while senior Asher Endorf chipped in 11 points, four boards and three assists.
Game 5: No. 4 Gretna 66, Pembroke Hill (MO) 51
Gretna used a dominant run to start the second half to build a 32-point lead before easing off the gas in the fourth quarter for a 15-point win.
Gretna opened up a 26-9 lead early in the second quarter before Pembroke Hill settled in, trimming the deficit to six at halftime. The Dragons proceeded to score 28 of the next 30 points, holding the Raiders to 1-of-15 shooting during that stretch.
“Seniors played like seniors,” Gretna coach Bill Heard said. “We kind of challenged them a little bit at half, nothing big, like they should play well this time of year, and they did.”
One of those seniors, Landon Pokorski, led the charge with 11 points in the third quarter as Gretna pushed the lead to 59-27 early in the fourth before sending in the bench. The Raiders finally snapped out of their cold spell, hitting 9 of their last 10 shots, but the deficit was far too large for the run to matter.
Pokorski led all scorers with 18 points on 8-of-13 shooting (2-of-4 from 3), seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. Fellow senior Alec Wilkins nearly matched him with 17 points on 7-of-9 from the field (1-of-1 from 3) and 2-of-2 from the line.
“I thought they played well,” Heard said. “They’ve played well here for a stretch. The word is efficient, that’s the key with those guys. So if they can stay there, we’re in a good spot.”
Game 6: No. 1 Bellevue West 62, Sunrise Christian Academy (KS) 60
Jaden Jackson starred in the first half, Jacob Arop stepped up in the third quarter and Eldon Turner took over late to deliver Bellevue West a win over a talented Sunrise Christian Academy in the Heartland Hoops Classic night cap.
Sunrise Christian was without a pair of 4-star guards, Kansas State commit David Castillo and junior Jeremiah Green, but the Buffaloes still rolled out four starters with Division I offers led by Spencer Ahrens, a 6-foot-9 junior with multiple Big Ten and Big East offers.
“For us as our program to come out and get a win like that, it’s huge,” Bellevue West coach Steve Klein Jr. said. “I’m really proud of our guys for being tough and sticking with it. I knew they were going to make it run. We weren’t going to run away from them, they’re too good. Jaden Jackson played really well.”
The Thunderbirds raced out to a 9-2 start as Jackson, a South Dakota State commit, knocked down 3-pointers on Bellevue West’s first three possessions, and they maintained the lead for much of the first three quarters, pushing it to double figures multiples times.
However, the Buffaloes came storming back in the fourth, opening the period with a 16-4 run to take a 60-57 lead with 90 seconds to play. Bellevue West was 1-for-8 from the field at that point, but the Thunderbirds found Turner on the right wing and he let it fly, burying a 3-pointer as a defender fell into his legs for a foul. Turner completed the four-point play to take the lead with 1:24 to play.
Sunrise got three cracks at it on the other end, but two misses and a turnover gave the ball back to Bellevue West. The Buffaloes put Jackson at the line with 20.4 to play and he split the shots, giving Sunrise possession down by two. Junior Caleb Williams attacked the basket looking to tie it up and Turner slid over from the weak side to take a charge with 5.3 to play, sealing the victory.
“Eldon hits the 3 and then makes the free throw and then comes and takes the charge, and that’s a huge winning play,” Klein said. “That’s the kind of plays that kid makes and that’s why I love that kid death. I wouldn’t give him to anybody, he’s my point guard. He’s just tougher than nails. He was out-sized all night tonight, as all our guys were, but he just he just kept with it and made a huge, huge play.”
Jackson finished with a team-high 24 points, shooting 7-of-12 from 3. Six of those triples came in the first half as he scored 18 of the team’s 29 points.
However, Jackson cooled off after halftime as Bellevue West went 1-for-9 from deep until Turner’s four-point play. After scoring just three buckets inside the arc in the first half, Bellevue West went 9-for-9 on 2s in the third quarter with senior Jacob Arop leading the way. Normally the team’s sixth man, Arop was in the starting lineup to match up with the tall Buffalo lineup and scored 10 of his 12 points in the third period. He also grabbed a team-high eight rebounds.
“Jacob Arop was huge in the second half,” Klein said. “I said at half, we do have to have a little bit of a physical presence inside because yes, we were going to shoot a lot of 3s tonight, but if they don’t go in, we’ve got to find a way to score the basketball a little bit. Jacob did a really good job being physical with guys and getting into guys and using his body to create space and finish and had a really good night.”
Ahrens finished with a game-high 26 points and 11 rebounds, but the Thunderbirds forced 18 Sunrise turnovers to earn their second straight Heartland Hoops Classic win and avenge a loss to the Buffaloes in 2021. The Thunderbirds beat Bishop Walsh out of Maryland at last year’s event.