LINCOLN — Crofton came from four points down at the end of the third quarter to defeat Ponca 46-42 in the Class C2 state championship game on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
The two Northeast Nebraska powers squared off in the state's final game of the season, capping off the finale of the six Saturday title games.
Defense was the name of the game throughout as turnovers and free throw shooting played big roles in the outcome.
"I knew tonight was going to be different than the first two games of the state tournament," Crofton coach Aaron Losing said. "Ponca's at a different level defensively than what we've seen down here this week.
"It was the kind of a basketball game between two teams that know each other well. We both tried to take away the other teams' strengths, and that's the kind of game you get with two teams that are familiar with each other."
The action under the basket was physical for the entire 32 minutes and not for the faint of heart. Ponca had the decided height advantage, but Crofton was up for the challenge, outrebounding the Indians 34-29 on the night.
Crofton led by as many as five points in the opening quarter, but Ponca fought back. Gracen Evans' turn-around jumper with 15 seconds left made the score Crofton 12, Ponca 11, after eight minutes.
The Warriors held the advantage early in the second quarter and led 17-15 when Kaley Einrem picked up her second foul of the game — both offensive — with 5:41 left, sending the talented guard to the bench until late in the first half.
The Indians responded with a 4-0 run. Addison McGee assisted Samantha Ehlers to put Ponca on top for the first time, 18-17.
Crofton tied it at 19 when Lacey Sprakel made one of her patented post moves before Ponca reeled off the next seven points on 2-point baskets by Ashlyn Kingsbury and Ehlers and an Ehlers 3.
The Warriors responded with a 6-0 run as Alexis Folkers, Einrem and Jayden Jordan all scored to make it a one-point game. Ponca then scored the final bucket of the first half with an Ehlers layup off an assist from Kingsbury, making the halftime score 28-25 in favor of the Indians.
Crofton regained the lead early in the third quarter. Einrem's steal and layup had the Warriors on top 29-28. Crofton continued to lead until the 3:30 mark when Kingsbury made a steal and coast-to-coast layup to put Ponca on top 33-32.
The teams then traded baskets before Kingsbury swished a 3 from the right wing in the final minute of the third quarter for a 38-34 Ponca advantage heading into the final eight minutes.
Losing said he told his players to stick with what they were doing. "I told them we needed to rebound the ball a little bit better, to make sure we got defensive stops, and we needed to figure out ways to counteract some of the things they were doing defensively."
Despite a size disadvantage, Crofton continued to attack the basket, and it began to pay off as the Warriors drew fouls and converted at the free throw line to the tune of 10 for 12 in the fourth quarter.
"That's the one thing that really wins games is your free throws, especially in close games," Sprakel said. "We're always working on those. Summertime, we're always working, practice, always, anytime we can get them, we always put them in."
Sprakel pulled down an offensive rebound, was fouled and made two free throws to bring the Warriors to within 40-39 with 3:37 to play. Then on the ensuing Ponca possession, Folkers stole a pass intended for Kingsbury and raced to the other end of the court for a layup and Crofton lead.
"I knew we needed a steal right there, so I was just trying to (anticipate) and get the steal," Folkers said.
Folkers then hit two free throws with 1:58 on the clock to put the Warriors up by three, and Evans made one of two charity tosses to bring Ponca back to within two at 43-41 with 1:31 on the clock.
Crofton then turned it over in the backcourt. Kingsbury was fouled and had a chance to tie it but made one of two as Crofton maintained a one-point lead.
The Warriors then turned the ball over again — one of their 21 on the night — with 57 seconds to play and Ponca had a chance to tie or take the lead on the other end.
Then, with 34 seconds remaining, Alyssa Crosgrove fired a 15-foot jumper from the left wing and the ball became stuck between the rim and the backboard. By rule, the officials called a jump ball and the possession arrow favored Crofton.
Einrem was fouled with 22 seconds to go and made both free throws to put Crofton up by three, 45-42.
Ponca had one more chance, but Kingsbury's 3 attempt with seven seconds left sailed long. Jordan rebounded, was fouled and made one of two free throws to seal the 46-42 win for the Warriors.
"I kind of expected a game like this," Losing said. "I knew we were going to have to battle through some adversity and it took us a while, but when we needed to, in the fourth quarter, we made plays down the stretch on both ends of the court."
Folkers and Jordan led the Warriors with 11 points apiece while Ehlers had 17 and Kingsbury 13 for Ponca.
It was Crofton's ninth state championship overall and first since 2016. When asked to compare the 2021 Warriors to his other eight state-championship teams, Losing diplomatically said, "This was one of our nine best groups."
Ponca finished second for the second consecutive year and third time overall.
Both teams should be back in the hunt for championship hardware again next year. Crofton will have to say goodbye to Sprakel, a Dakota Wesleyan recruit, Einrem and Allie Dahl.
Meanwhile, Ponca's three leading scorers — Ehlers, Kingsbury and Evans — are all sophomores and will be back in 2021-22.
The Indians will bid farewell to Crosgrove, Evelyn Krusemark, Hannah Wahls, Lauryn Gill and Tailynn Lawyer.
"We're going to miss the seniors," Ponca coach Bob Hayes said. "They didn't sometimes get a lot of playing time, but they gave us great character and a lot of class."
Class C2 state championship
Ponca 11 17 10 4 — 42
Crofton 12 13 9 12 — 46
PONCA (21-5): Addison McGill 0-2 0-0 0; Alyssa Crosgrove 1-7 0-0 2; Mattie Milligan 0-2 0-0 0; Ashlyn Kingsbury 3-7 6-8 13; Gracen Evans 3-8 4-8 10; Samantha Ehlers 7-15 2-3 17; Tailynn Lawyer 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 14-45 12-19 42.
CROFTON (26-3): Alexis Folkers 3-8 5-6 11; Jayden Jordan 3-7 4-6 11; Ella Wragge 2-4 0-1 5; Kaley Einrem 2-5 4-4 8; Caitlin Guenther 0-2 0-0 0; Ellie Tramp 1-5 1-2 3; Lacey Sprakel 2-7 4-4 8. Totals 13-38 18-23 46.