In a way, the careers for North Platte’s seniors started in the same place they finished.
Mostly peripheral observers the last time around, the trio returned to Falcon Fieldhouse on Wednesday, Feb. 27 for a long-awaited return to the Class 2 playoffs. The Panthers ran into a familiar foe in the sectional matchup, fell behind early in the first half and didn’t recover in a 55-30 loss to Mid-Buchanan.
However, the positives were obvious for North Platte. Three years earlier, the Panthers lost in the same round to Santa Fe when seniors Janell Manville, Grace Rice and McKenzie Sams were minimal contributors. Two straight losing seasons followed before this year’s run to the Class 2 District 15 championship.
“Those seniors as freshmen were part of a group that won districts so they got to see that even though they didn’t play a lot,” North Platte coach Ryan Davis said. “But then their sophomore year we really had a tough year. We were a little bit better last year, but to come from where they were two years ago to get here and play as well as they played last week, they should be really proud of that.”
Manville, Rice and Sams combined for just six points in their final game, unable to dethrone Mid-Buchanan (25-5) — the 2018 Class 2 state runnerup and a repeat state semifinal qualifier after a win over Skyline three days after the triumph against North Platte. The Dragons have now won six straight against their KCI rival, including a 3-0 trecord his season.
While each of the three wins was by double digits, Mid-Buchanan’s sectional performance was the best of the bunch. North Platte trailed by double digits from the beginning of the second quarter on, dooming the Panthers to a disappointing end to a resurgent season.
“(This was) well worth it, and I think it was about time for it, too,” Manville said. “We just always had the goal of being there, and it was finally the seniors’ turn to make it our team. We worked really hard to get where we were.”
Both teams struggled early in a frenetic start to the playoff matchup, but North Platte faded. The Panthers missed too many close shots, committed untimely turnovers and allowed Mid-Buchanan too many second-chance opportunities.
Mid-Buchanan junior Cali Bailey and senior Hannah Parrott hit back-to-back 3-pointers late in the first quarter — the first prompting a timeout from Davis and the second making it 15-6 heading to the second quarter. The Dragons’ run hit 17-0 near the midway point of the second quarter before Manville split a pair of free throws with 4 minutes, 10 seconds left before halftime to stop an offensive drought of nearly 7 minutes. It was her only point of the night.
Rice hit a 3-pointer late in the second quarter for her only points, and North Platte trailed 28-12 at halftime.
“We were kind of hanging around, and we probably should’ve ended up having a lead there in the first quarter and maybe that changes the game,” Davis said. “We just didn’t have it tonight.
“We let it get away from us there in the second quarter. That was the difference (this time).”
Out of halftime, North Platte immediately committed a turnover, leading to a runout layup for Mid-Buchanan senior Jaele Barber, who scored nine of her 14 in the second half. Bailey led all scorers with 19, including two of the Dragons’ six 3-pointers.
North Platte junior Jorydn Smith led the Panthers with seven off the bench, while freshman Josie Roach had five. Gracie Ramsey, another freshman, added five more late in the fourth quarter with the reserves for both teams on the floor. In addition to the struggles for the seniors, junior all-district performer McKenzie Brockhoff managed just two points earlier after having dealt with illness in the days leading up to the game.
Mid-Buchanan led 43-21 entering the fourth quarter, and North Platte faced a running clock for the majority of the remainder when the lead went to 30-plus. Davis subbed out the three seniors with 2½ minutes to go, greeting each of the players as they came off the floor to take seats at the end of the bench.
In the moment, the finality of the situation didn’t set in.
“Hadn’t really (thought about it), don’t really want to yet,” Manville said outside the locker room after the game. “Didn’t think about it. Didn’t want to think about it.”
However, North Platte’s seniors left a lasting impact they hope will resonate with their younger teammates. The 2016 playoff trip was the seventh in eight years for the Panthers and added to what had been more than a decade of consistency for the program.
North Platte (15-13) won the District 15 tournament as the No. 3 seed, upsetting No. 2 Lone Jack in the semifinals and topping fourth-seeded Midway in the title game. The Panthers were guaranteed of not only a winning season, but a return to the sectional round for Manville, Rice and Sams and valuable experience for the next generation.
“Our juniors, sophomores and freshmen get a taste of this to hopefully want to get back here in the future,” Davis said. “If they don’t do that, then we have to worry about classes not experiencing this. (The seniors) did a great job.”