The North Platte senior forward took two dribbles toward halfcourt in his home gymnasium, completing the biggest win for the program in years. Quickly rebuilding under first-year head coach Tim Sutton, the Panthers took advantage of Mid-Buchanan’s poor free throw shooting to score a 46-42 upset of the Dragons on Saturday, Jan. 30 at North Platte High School.
Not only did North Platte earns its first tournament title since winning its home tournament in 2007, the Panthers also knocked off last year’s Class 2 state runner-up, the KCI Conference tournament champions and the league favorite again this year.
“I never thought it was in the bag until (Ewing) dribbled across half court and I looked up and saw 0.3 on the clock.” Sutton said. “It still hadn’t dawned on me yet. It was a great effort. I told them, ‘Twenty years from now when you tell this story, you’ll have won by 20 points. You have great things like this that happen to you, fun things that happen to you. You just have to celebrate and enjoy.’”
Seeded No. 2, North Platte swept its pool games, although overtime survival was needed against Jefferson, to reach the title game.
The Panthers came into the tournament on a three-game losing streak, including an unexpected loss to rival West Platte in KCI play. The three wins in the North Platte Invitational pushed their record to 9-8, surpassing last year’s win total of eight with three weeks to go in the regular season.
The win against Mid-Buchanan, the Panthers’ first since a double overtime triumph in 2013, could be the win needed to inspire a late season run.
“I just came out in my T-shirt that says ‘Believe,’” Sutton said. “I talk to them all the time and say, ‘Have faith in yourselves. You don’t know what’s going to happen, but have faith. You guys are a good team. Relax and play the game.’ Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. But if you are relaxed and play and do your best, good things will happen more often than not.”
North Platte senior guard Anthony Hernandez scored 10 of his 11 points in the first quarter, and the Panthers held Mid-Buchanan to just six points in the frame. The Dragons never took a lead, thanks in part to shooting 18-for-38 on free throws, unable to take advantage of free opportunities.
Mid-Buchanan trailed 23-18 at halftime and closed to within 28-27 but couldn’t overcome the slow start.
“All year we’ve been starting out slow,” Hernandez said. “I knew the young guys on the team were looking up to us. We have four seniors who start. I knew someone had to come out and make a strong start, and that’s what I did.”
Andrew Roberts, another senior guard for North Platte, picked up the scoring in the second half. He tallied 17 of his game-high 20 points after halftime.
North Platte led by double digits early in the second quarter but never led by more than six in the second half. Roberts made just one field goal in the fourth quarter but also went 7-for-9 at the line to help the Panthers survive Mid-Buchanan’s final charges.
With the lead down to 42-41, North Platte’s Hunter Oliver hit a free throw but missed his second.
However, an offensive rebound gave the Panthers possession again, and Roberts hit a pair to reestablish a double-digit lead at 45-41 with 16.7 seconds left.
After an exchange of 1-for-2 trips to the free throw line, Mid-Buchanan’s final 3-pointer missed with Ewing, who scored six points, grabbing the final rebound and running out the clock.
“It just shows everybody what we can do,” Roberts said. “People expected us to lose this game, but coming out, we’re just headed forward.”
After closing to within 28-27, Mid-Buchanan went just 9 of 19 on free throws the rest of the way. The normally hot shooting Dragons did not make a 3-pointer, held in check by an active zone and some man marking. Ben French, a junior guard, drew the duty of limiting returning all-state senior guard Braydn Kemper, who finished with just one field goal and six points.
“I sat down with about 5 minutes left and Andrew is at the line. I sit down and say, ‘If we make free throws, we’re going to win,’” Sutton said. “It could have been a little easier. We could have made a few more. For the most part we did a better job at the line. A lot of points came from there late. We played terrific to start the game. We got a little nervous but we managed to hold on.”
North Platte 47, Jefferson 45, OT
Ben French’s two free throws with 10.6 seconds left in overtime gave the Panthers the win Thursday, Jan. 28, sending them into the championship game.
North Platte took possession with 12 seconds left and quickly drew the foul that led to the winning points. French scored four of his six points in the overtime, including the only field goal for either team in the extra session.
The two teams went back-and-forth throughout with Jefferson taking a one-point lead into the fourth quarter. Roberts scored six of his 19 points in the final 8 minutes, and North Platte led 36-33 with 2:49 to play in regulation.
The score ended up tied at 41, and Jefferson’s final possession of regulation ended without points, setting up the overtime.
Roberts and Kyle Ewing combined for 18 of North Platte’s 22 points in the first half. Ewing had six in each of the first two quarters, including a 3-pointer on his way to 16 points.
North Platte 66, Northland Christian 45
Roberts scored a game-high 27 points, going 14-for-15 on free throws in a pool win for the Panthers Tuesday, Jan. 26. The senior guard scored at least four points in every quarter.
North Platte led 26-12 at halftime, and Roberts, Herndandez, Hunter Oliver and Austin Snook each hit a 3-pointer in the third quarter, which saw the Panthers score 22 total points. Roberts scored nine in the frame.
Oliver and Hernandez finished with 10 points apiece.
West Platte 58, Mound City 56, OT
Senior forward Daniel Cicha led a quartet of double-figure scorers, helping push the Bluejays to a dramatic win in pool play Tuesday, Jan. 26 in Dearborn, Mo. He scored 10 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter and overtime.
West Platte trailed throughout much of the first half and went into the break down 22-18.
McKaulley Stephenson tallied seven of his 11 points in the third quarter, including a 3-pointer, and senior guard Luke Horseman’s second of three 3s helped the Bluejays put up 18 points to start the comeback.
Horseman also finished with 11 points.
West Platte’s senior quartet accounted for all but two points, including all 22 points for the Bluejays in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Fellow senior Brett Shepardson (16 points) McKaulley Stephenson and Luke Horseman finished with 11 apiece.
Mid-Buchanan 55, West Platte 25
The Bluejays couldn’t keep up their momentum in a pool loss Thursday, Jan. 28.
Mid-Buchanan led 32-14 at halftime with star guard Braydn Kemper hitting five of his seven 3-pointers in the first half. West Platte scored just three points in the third quarter, and Shepardson led the Bluejays in scoring with seven points.
Horseman added a pair of first-half 3s and finished with six points.
Jefferson 53, West Platte 32
The Bluejays ended up fourth with back-to-back losses to close out the tournament.
Shepardson scored all of his team-high nine points for West Platte after the first quarter, which saw Jefferson open up a 19-8 advantage Saturday, Jan. 30 in the NPI’s third-place game. Cicha scored six in the first quarter for the Bluejays, who trailed 31-16 at halftime before allowing the Eagles 19 more points in the third quarter.