Cody Thorn and Adam Burns
DEARBORN, Mo. — Based on records alone, North Platte had no business being in a district championship game.
The No. 7 seed in an eight-team Class 2 District 15 tournament, the Panthers pulled off a pair of upsets to reach the championship game against Plattsburg on Saturday, Feb. 23. The magical run ended with a 68-49 loss to the top-seeded and KCI Conference rival Tigers.
“I think one, being a No. 7 seed, we had two other games this week and we ran into fatigue,” North Platte coach Erick Roe said. “We aren’t very deep and they are giving me everything they got. Hats off to Plattsburg, they are a great team. They have a lot of skilled players and a great staff.
“The biggest thing this offseason is how bad they want it. For myself, getting these guys to feel what it feels like to be in a district championship game, I think we can use that as motivation next year.”
Plattsburg, which will play Mid-Buchanan in the opening round of the Class 2 playoffs, beat North Platte 67-34 on Dec. 14. That was just part of a 14-game losing streak North Platte endured from Dec. 11 to Feb. 13. in Roe’s first year.
North Platte finished 4-20 this year, but went 3-2 over the final five.
“The big thing for us, we came a long way from Day 1,” said Roe, an all-state player and playoff regular at West Platte. “The main thing is compete and learn what it takes to compete. I think to have a little success in a district game like this means we a lot. I couldn’t be more proud of these guys.”
North Platte held a lead early in the first quarter, 9-8, but a 5-0 advantage late in the first gave Plattsburg the lead. In the second quarter, Kaden Hodge took over, figuratively and literally, scoring all 16 points he accounted for in a 4-minute stretch. He hit a trio of 3-pointers and that gave the Tigers a 37-19 lead at the break.
Austin Stevens scored the initial baskets of the second half to give Plattsburg a 20-point lead, but North Platte got trey from Caine Huffman to start a 7-0 run. That trimmed the deficit down to 44-30, but a 13-2 run by Plattsburg followed and the Panthers were down by 27.
A pair of free throws by Ty French in the final seconds allowed North Platte to trim the deficit to 57-34 going into the fourth.
North Platte hung around and never let the deficit get into turbo-clock range. With 3 minutes left, Plattsburg pulled its starters up 20.
“Early in the season, we’d laid down and fell over,” Roe said. “They understand it is a process and we play 32 minutes and earn respect. That is how we will try to build this program.”
Huffman led North Platte with 10 points, while Jesse Martin and Andrew Hernandez each had nine.
Stevens led all scorer with 26, 15 of which came in the third quarter. Hodge had 16 and Isaiah Graham added 11.
North Platte 47, West Platte 43
North Platte avenged a pair of regular-season losses as it shocked West Platte in a district semifinal contest on Thursday, Feb. 21.
“It’s unbelievable,” junior guard Andrew Hernandez said after the win. “We came in districts 2-19 I think with everyone doubting us, not thinking we were going to get past the first round.”
The difference between the playoff game vs. the regular season games? A strong start, and an increase of intensity to hold off the third-seeded Bluejays, who finished the season 11-11 after only three wins a year ago.
“Coach talked about finishing,” said Hernandez, who led North Platte with 18 points. “Our last two games against them we let a lead go. This game we just kept going. In the huddle, he told us to finish it.”
“It was a dogfight, an old-fashioned dogfight,” Roe said. “I think both teams played their hearts out and we were fortunate to get this one tonight.”
West Platte coach Jason Nichols agreed.
“The minute that we knew that this was going to be our second-round opponent we knew that the stakes we’re going to be even higher,” Nichols said. “And the stakes don’t get higher than playing a rival in the district semifinal round. You kind of throw the records out and we knew it was going to be a battle.”
Indeed it was. North Platte made the first big move, closing out the first quarter on a 13-3 run to take a 17-11 lead into the second quarter.
The Panthers, who led 24-19 at the half and 32-27 after the third quarter, held on to a lead the rest of the way. It wasn’t until a 12-4 West Platte run that put the Bluejays within two at 42-40 with 1:30 left.
But the Panthers held off West Platte, 5-3, in the final minutes, as Jesse Martin, who finished with 10 points, scored a pair of buckets and Chase Bridger made a free throw to seal the deal.
“We wanted to get more looks in the paint, but we settled for a lot of perimeter shots,” Nichols said. “Once we started getting some things in the paint, it was too little too late.
“I’m just proud of the guys,” he added. “These guys have accomplished so much. They went from two wins to 12 and really changed the culture of the program. I tried to get them to fight off that this will be the lasting of a great season. The buy-in I had with these guys from this group as a new coach, they worked their tails off and set the standard for future.”
The win for Roe, a Weston product, is an emotional one, considering his ties to the Bluejays.
“I know those people over there and I respect them 100 percent,” Roe said. “It’s a fantastic school, fantastic administration, fantastic kids. I’ll never be ashamed to be a part of West Platte, but it was just our night.”