LINCOLN — In 2021, the Ponca Indians and Crofton Warriors squared off for the Class C2 title with the Warriors coming out on top.

A year and two days later, the teams met in the first round of the Nebraska state C2 girls basketball quarterfinals. It would end up being even more of a thriller than that title game and the two previous occasions they played this season.

Once again, it was Crofton that grinded its way to a 41-38 win at Lincoln Southeast High School on Tuesday.

“We were fortunate enough to get a really good win against a great team,” Crofton coach Aaron Losing said. “You kind of feel bad for them, but I'm sure if they would’ve come out on top, they’d have probably said the same thing for us.”

Down 38-34 with one minute, 24 seconds remaining, Samantha Ehlers hit a step-back jumper to make it a two-point game. The Indians then went into a press defense, and it seemed as if Ponca would need to play the free-throw game if it wanted to get back in the game.

The Indians ended up forcing a turnover not long after the inbounds pass, which Mattie McGill turned into a game-tying drive to the hoop with 17 seconds left.

Crofton went right to work in search of the winning basket. Eventually, Ella Wragge got an open look underneath. She put up a shot, got it to go and drew a foul.

The play was one of two go-ahead three-point plays in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. Alexis Folkers had one with 2:26 to go.

Losing credits an offense that was able to take advantage of room created by Ponca’s full-court press later in the fourth quarter.

“When they were forced to press, that opened up the court a little bit for our kids,” he said. “It gave us some driving lanes and a little more space to operate maybe than earlier in the game.”

Wragge made the ensuing free throw to make it a three-point lead. Gracen Evans heaved it to half court to Ehlers, who found Ashlyn Kingsbury in the corner. With time winding down, she threw up a 3-pointer hoping to extend the game, but it was too high.

The 38 points were the second fewest they’d scored in a game all season. They were held to 37 on Jan. 4 in a regular-season loss to Crofton, their only one of the season leading up to Tuesday.

“Instead of running our offense and getting something good, we wanted to try to throw two passes and thought we should get something,” coach Bob Hayes said. “Crofton’s too good a defensive team to do that. You gotta execute and run your offense, and we didn’t do that very well.”

Expectations were higher for the Indians, but it was a team Hayes had a lot of fun coaching. Next year, they bring back all but one player on this year’s roster, senior Addison McGill.

“24-2 and you get beat the first round of the state tournament, I don’t think that’s a lost season,” Hayes said. “We had higher expectations, but it’s still not a failure.”

The Warriors now move on to the state semifinals, where another familiar opponent awaits.

Over the past 10 years, the Warriors have faced Hastings St. Cecilia in the state tournament six times. Four of those instances were in the state championship, and two came in the state semifinals. Crofton has won four of those meetings but lost the past two.

“We’ve just got to prepare for what they do and come out and play hard and play smart and see what happens,” Losing said.

The teams tip off Thursday at 9 a.m. in the Bob Devaney Sports Center.

CLASS C2 GIRLS QUARTERFINAL

Ponca 11 11 4 12 — 38

Crofton 10 11 8 12 — 41

PONCA (24-2): Ellie McAfee 1-2 0-0 2; Mattie Milligan 2-5 0-0 4; Ashlyn Kingsbury 2-11 6-8 11; Gracen Evans 4-8 0-0 8; Samantha Ehlers 4-10 2-3 13. Total, 14-39 8-11 38.

CROFTON (22-4): Alexis Folkers 2-7 2-4 8; Jayden Jordan 3-12 2-4 8; Ella Wragge 4-6 1-1 9; Sammie Allen 1-2 0-0 2; Caitlin Guenther 7-9 0-0 14. Total, 18-42 5-9 41.

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