LINCOLN — The Hartington Cedar Catholic Trojans were hot early, then held off a rally late to beat the Elkhorn Valley Falcons 59-50 in the Class C2 boys basketball tournament quarterfinals on Thursday at the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
“We knew we had to come out hot,” Cedar Catholic senior Jaxson Bernecker said. “We knew we had to come out flying around the court.”
That the Trojans did, getting out to an 8-2 lead in the first quarter. The teams traded blows for a bit, then Nolan Becker scored four straight points for Cedar Catholic before the quarter’s end.
Carson Arens made sure the red and white kept right on going. The senior started the second quarter with a layup off a turnover followed by a 3-pointer. Not long after, Tyan Baller made a pair of baskets, including a 3. The buckets put Cedar Catholic ahead 27-7 with 6:10 left.
The turnover Arens scored off of was one of 17 that Elkhorn Valley allowed compared with 11 from Cedar Catholic. Bernecker said those takeaways led to lots of success on the other end.
“Our defense helped turn into offense, and we hit a lot of fast-break layups,” he said. “We had a lot of 3-point shots off of a drive-and-kick just in transition, and I felt like we just did a good job of playing our game.”
Bernecker finished second on the Trojans with 14 points. Baller led the team with 21 points on 8 of 12 shooting from the field and 4 of 8 shooting on 3-pointers.
Dawson Hansen drove to the hoop for a basket to stop the run, then Andrew Jones answered with a layup. Elkhorn Valley got on a 7-0 run to make it a 14-point game. Then, just before the break, Becker got a layup off a turnover at the other end with four seconds left. The Trojans held a 31-16 lead at halftime.
Falcons coach Derric Werner said once Cedar Catholic forced them out of their high-scoring style of play, it cost them.
“We didn’t play like us in the first half,” Werner said. “They kind of took us out of that a little bit, and I think we started doubting ourselves a little bit in that first half.”
Cedar Catholic got out to a 43-21 lead with 4:18 left in the third quarter. However, the Falcons responded with a 12-0 run going into the fourth quarter, making it 43-33 with 7:41 left in the game.
The Trojans answered back with a 6-0 run, after which the Falcons hit a pair of baskets. The teams went back and forth for a bit, then the Trojans began to hold on defense and made the free throws necessary to win.
The game was a rematch of a regular-season bout between the teams on Feb. 11 in Tilden. Cedar Catholic won that game by five.
In that previous matchup, Cedar Catholic held a 21-point lead in the third quarter. Elkhorn Valley rallied to make it a three-point game in its final minute.
For Bernecker, that rally was almost a blessing in disguise. It helped prepare the Trojans for when the Falcons made another run this time around.
“I felt like that got us ready for this time,” he said. “Once we got that lead and we started doing a couple of mistakes, we just kind of had to settle in and play our game, and that helped us to hold them off.”
Six of Cedar Catholic’s 11 turnovers came in the second half.
This was the first boys state basketball tournament appearance in the history of Elkhorn Valley’s program whereas Cedar Catholic is in Lincoln for the third time in four years. Cedar Catholic coach Matt Steffen said the experience helped, but he still wanted a great deal of focus from his team.
“I just kept telling the kids we can’t rely on that,” he said. “I didn’t think Elkhorn Valley was going to fold up because they were nervous. They were confident. They came down and played with heart.”
Elkhorn Valley’s historic season included a 23-3 record. Each loss came to a team that qualified for the C2 tournament — Cedar Catholic twice and Norfolk Catholic once.
Along the way, the Falcons won the Niobrara Valley Conference tournament title, swept their subdistrict at home and won their first district final in program history to qualify for state.
Following the end of their first ever trip to Lincoln, Werner’s message to his group was simple.
“It’s the first one in history,” he said. “Not the last one.”
As for the Trojans, they’ll take on No. 1 seed Freeman in the C2 semifinals on Friday at 1:30 p.m. at Devaney.
CLASS C2 STATE TOURNAMENT
Elkhorn Valley 7 9 15 19 — 50
Cedar Catholic 17 14 12 16 — 59
ELKHORN VALLEY (23-3): Kellyn Ollendick 3-12 0-0 9; Dawson Hansen 5-7 2-3 12; Brendyn Ollendick 5-20 2-4 14; Korbin Werner 2-6 2-2 6; Drew Hansen 1-1 0-0 2; Carter Werner 3-7 1-1 7. Totals 19-53 7-17 50.
CEDAR CATHOLIC (23-4): Andrew Jones 2-6 1-2 5; Tyan Baller 8-12 1-3 21; Grant Arens 0-2 0-0 0; Carson Arens 3-7 2-4 9; Nolan Becker 4-7 2-5 10; Jaxson Bernecker 6-15 2-2 14. Totals 23-49 8-16 59.