It was 43-42 with five seconds left.
The Creighton Bulldogs were leading the undefeated Summerland Bobcats on the road, but needed to make one last defensive stand to win it.
Shortly after an inbounds pass by the Bobcats, a player drove to the hoop looking for the winning basket. Just as he was, John Mitchell III stepped in front of him and drew a charge. The Bulldogs ran out the clock from there and secured a huge win.
“I think both teams are capable of scoring in the 60s and to have a 43-42 game obviously shows defense,” coach Ryon Nilson said of the win. “To probably have the game essentially end on a charge call I think really signifies how important the defensive side was.”
Mitchell himself has been on quite the journey when it comes to high school basketball.
The senior averaged 28.2 points per game in his first two years at Creighton and was selected to the Class D Elite 8 team in 2021. Following that season, he transferred to Bellevue West, joining one of the better boys basketball programs in Nebraska and the country.
However, Mitchell didn’t see nearly as much playing time and went back to Creighton. His presence has provided a valuable spark to the team.
“He really has worked on his shot a ton,” Nilson said. “He’s a better shooter than he was two years ago.”
Mitchell leads the team with 19.1 points per game. His ability to score in bunches is still there, but more often than not, he’s doing whatever’s most needed to help his team win.
“He’ll do what he needs to do, but he likes to see our other guys do great and have points,” Nilson said. “I think just the team surrounding him probably puts him in that situation better than it did two years ago.”
That team includes players like Kale Fulton. His numbers won’t pop out on the stat sheet, but the senior has shown grit on defense and a willingness to do whatever it takes to win that’s served the team well so far.
Before the final sequence of the Summerland game, Creighton had a foul to give and wanted to do so in order to set itself up for the eventual last stand. Fulton already had four fouls going in, but was willing to foul if he had to, even if it meant disqualification.
“The rest of my kids would have kind of looked at me like ‘You’re crazy. I’m going to foul out’. ” Nilson said. “That’s just kind of his mentality.”
Gage Burns is third on the team with 10.3 points a game. The senior had 14 points against Summerland, including a big blocked shot late to go with several late key shots and rebounds.
Creighton’s other two starters, sophomores Ty Diedrichsen and Taylor Nilson, have led the team in scoring in at least one game this season.
The three seniors make up a strong nucleus that serves as a model for excellence on and off the court.
Many of those on the starting five are top three in their class academically and not one of them has a disciplinary action against them.
A lot of the players are part of Creighton High School’s student leadership team. It oversees a program called Bulldog Connection, where those involved help out at the elementary school, participating in simple projects and mentoring activities.
“They’re going down to our elementary and working with our elementary kids on different projects,” Nilson said. “So they're leaders across multiple facets of the high school years.”
It’s been a great start to the year so far, but big challenges still lie ahead.
In the coming week alone, Creighton travels to O’Neill on Saturday before hosting Class D No. 1 Wynot on Tuesday. On Friday, Jan. 20, it travels to face Class C No. 6 Elkhorn Valley.
Along with the aforementioned leadership and experience, depth will be a big part of continuing the positive momentum as tournaments get closer. The team isn’t quite as deep as some expected it to be, but there are still plenty of players capable of registering quality varsity minutes. Not to mention, each of them understand his role very well.
“We still feel like we’ve got nine guys that can go out and play varsity competition at a pretty high level and I think most of the time they really understand their role,” Nilson said. “Maybe in a JV game, they’re going to be the scorer. Maybe in the varsity game they’re more of a facilitator and I think they understand that pretty well.”
Not much changes with this week’s ratings.
Class C stays the same from last week. Wakefield is making a strong push to be rated, but Laurel-Concord-Coleridge has so far held its own against a very tough schedule, warts and all. O’Neill, Clarkson/Leigh and Lutheran high Northeast are also receiving consideration.
Howells-Dodge jumps Humphrey St. Francis for No. 2 in Class D after beating the Flyers by 20 on Friday. Creighton’s win over Summerland puts it at No. 4 and Bancroft-Rosalie at No. 5. Everyone else holds steady, but Santee is garnering consideration.
Pierce kept moving right along with wins over David City Aquinas and Columbus Lakeview this past week. Ben Brahmer scored his 1,000th career point in the Aquinas game. A big stretch awaits the Bluejays, who travel to face a pair of Mid-State powers with Hartington Cedar Catholic on Friday and Norfolk Catholic on Tuesday.
Cedar Catholic picked up wins against Laurel-Concord-Coleridge and at previously undefeated Wynot. Shooting is a bit of an issue for the Trojans, but Jaxson Bernecker’s presence on the inside gives them an advantage there against almost anybody. This week, they’ll travel to face Dakota Valley, a defending state champion in South Dakota’s Class A, on Thursday before hosting Pierce on Saturday.
Wayne was hoping to get things going after a disappointing finish to the Northeast Nebraska Shootout and is has been doing that so far. The Blue Devils picked up wins against a trio of quality opponents in Norfolk Catholic, Boone Central and Laurel-Concord-Coleridge. Wayne hits the road for contests against North Bend Central and Boys Town before heading home to play Crofton.
Boone Central dropped a home game to O’Neill on top of its loss to Wayne this week. The Cardinals have played six games against Mid-State Conference opponents and lost five of them. That’s something that will need to change as the conference tournament gets closer. The team faces Lincoln Christian, Guardian Angels Central Catholic and St. Paul this coming week.
Norfolk Catholic bounced back from its loss at Wayne with wins over Battle Creek and Columbus Scotus. Karter Kerkman is emerging as a prolific scorer for the Knights, putting up 16 points against Wayne and 18 against Battle Creek while averaging over 10 a game. These next two weeks will be a tough stretch for the red and white. It starts with home games against Crofton on Saturday and Pierce on Tuesday.
Elkhorn Valley fought off a fierce comeback to beat West Holt on Saturday and handled Stanton on Tuesday. Brendyn Ollendick scored 22 and 20 points, respectively, and is averaging 20.1 a game. The Falcons’ top five scorers all have at least two games with 12 or more points. The green and gold face Niobrara/Verdigre, Bloomfield and Wausa this week.
Summerland picked up wins against North Central, West Holt and Stuart, but it took its first loss of the season on Tuesday against Creighton 43-42. This is a very young team, with four sophomores starting and just three seniors on the entire team. Its response to this will be something to watch. The Bobcats face Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family this Friday.
Laurel-Concord-Coleridge dropped games to Cedar Catholic and Wayne, but beat Winnebago in between. The Bears are 1-4 in games in which Jake Rath is the only player scoring 10 or more points. Rath is also the only player shooting 50% or higher on field goals. The Bears take on Walthill, Plainview and Hartington-Newcastle this week.
Wynot started the past seven days with dominant wins over Tri County Northeast and Guardian Angels Central Catholic. Then it had to muscle out a win on Wausa in overtime on Monday before falling to Cedar Catholic on Tuesday. This is a deep team with the kind of tenacity that can carry it far, but it struggled a bit in the post against both Wausa and Cedar. Another loaded week awaits as the Blue Devils face Niobrara/Verdigre, Winnebago, Pender and Creighton.
Howells-Dodge beat Humphrey St. Francis and Guardian Angels Central Catholic on Friday and Saturday, respectively. The Jaguars have now won eight straight since starting the season 1-3. The team hosts Wisner-Pilger on Friday then hits the road to face Mead, a team considered by many to be one of the best in Class D1.
Humphrey St. Francis bounced back from its loss to the Jaguars with a win over Goldenrod Conference rival Burwell on Saturday. Jaden Kosch continues to be a prolific scorer for the team, perhaps even more so with Tanner Pfeifer having graduated. The Flyers travel to face Clarkson/Leigh on Friday, then start the Goldenrod Conference tournament on Monday with a quarterfinal game against Heartland Lutheran or Elba.
Creighton bounced back strongly from its second loss of the year. The Bulldogs beat Winside and Boyd County before handing Summerland its first loss of the season on the road last Tuesday. It’s a big confidence booster for a team willing to do whatever it takes to win. However, a telling week awaits Creighton, which faces O’Neill on Saturday and Wynot next Tuesday.
Bancroft-Rosalie handled Siouxland Community Christian of Iowa on Saturday, then beat Oakland-Craig by 10 on the road on Tuesday. The Panthers shot 54% from 3 against Siouxland and are averaging 62.8 points a game to start the year. The team hosts Ponca on Saturday and travels to Homer on Tuesday.
Wausa came back to earth this week after starting the year 7-1. The Vikings finished second in their home post-holiday tournament to Lutheran High Northeast, then dropped a heartbreaker to Wynot on Monday and a close one to Neligh-Oakdale on Tuesday. The Vikings were outscored 102-62 in the second half and overtime of each of those losses. It won’t get much easier this week as they travel to Elkhorn Valley on Tuesday.
Elgin Public/Pope John beat Bloomfield 65-46 on Saturday and Fullerton 84-37 on Tuesday. The Wolfpack seem to have relied pretty heavily on defense so far. They’ve allowed fewer than 50 points in each of their wins and more than 50 in each of their losses. It’ll be a trend to watch as the season goes on. The Wolfpack will host Stuart on Friday before going to Winside on Saturday.
Stuart beat Neligh-Oakdale and Chambers/Wheeler Central this past week. In between it fell to Summerland 53-44. The team appears very sound fundamentally as it did a year ago. I’m curious to see how it responds to some of the Niobrara Valley Conference’s best. We’ll learn a lot about the Broncos on Friday when they travel to face Elgin Public/Pope John.
GAMES TO WATCH
Friday: Humphrey St. Francis at Clarkson/Leigh, Stuart at Elgin Public/Pope John, Pierce at Hartington Cedar Catholic.
Saturday: Howells-Dodge at Mead, Creighton at O’Neill.
Tuesday: Pierce at Norfolk Catholic.