After battling through the most unprecedented basketball season in recent memory, only three wins stand between the Junior Jays and a 14th state championship on the court. As the #3 seed in the state tournament, their first challenge will be an explosive, red-hot Papillion-La Vista South team in the quarterfinals. Even though the Junior Jays already took down the Titans in a 66-54 win on January 27, that result means nothing now, as anything can happen with eight teams giving it their all for a shot at a state title. With the winner set to play the victor of the Bellevue West-Lincoln East game, let’s take a deeper dive into this Prep-Papio South matchup, quite possibly the most intriguing quarterfinal of the day.
How they Got Here: Papillion-La Vista South
The Titans began the season ranked fifth in Class A, and they certainly proved themselves as a top five team with 65 or more points scored in five of their first six games. However, they started to unravel after losing in overtime to Omaha Central in the holiday tournament and flipping the calendar to 2021. They rang in the new year with losses in 7 of their first 9 games, with all of them being by a margin of at least 12 points and 6 of them coming against fellow top 10 opponents. Their two victories in that span were far from impressive too, with a 60-55 win over unranked Kearney and a 56-50 win over a borderline top ten Gretna team. Additionally, Papio South didn’t shoot above 50% from the field in a single one of those 9 games, struggling to reach their potential as a strong three-point shooting team. Hopes of a state title were beginning to look very bleak for the Titans, as they found themselves dropped all the way down to ninth in the state by the end of January. Little did they know what would come next.
For the entire month of February, the Titans enjoyed a much-needed respite from top 10 opponents. They returned to the winning ways they had enjoyed in December, rattling off 6 consecutive victories against unranked teams, including a 59-46 win in district semifinals over Lincoln Southwest. Papio South scored at least 64 points in 5 of those 6 games, shooting at a much-improved clip with a field goal percentage of 47 or better in all but one game. But they would have one more test to pass to reach Pinnacle Bank Arena, coming in the form of a district final matchup at Omaha Central, a team that had already knocked them off twice in December.
In the win-or-go-home matchup last Monday, the Titans upset the fifth-ranked Eagles by a score of 64-59, punching their ticket to the state tournament. Junior Daniel Brocaille led the way with 20 points (7 of 13 shooting) and 7 rebounds, while senior Graham Cassoutt added 13 points and senior Jackson Trout pitched in with a team-high 9 rebounds and 3 assists. The keys to the victory were the two stats that had the greatest impact on the Titans’ results throughout the season: shooting and rebounding. With the season on the line, the Titans shot 54% from the field, while also pulling out their best three-point shooting performance since December 18 with a mark of 45% from downtown. Comparatively, Central hit only 45% of their field goals and shot 32% from beyond the arc. Finally, on the boards, Papio South exposed Central’s height disadvantage by out-rebounding them 27-18, grabbing 20 defensive rebounds to limit the second-chance opportunities the Eagles so often thrived on.
Taking a Look at the Titans
Papillion-La Vista South has caught fire at the right time, and Creighton Prep head coach Josh Luedtke certainly understands what they’ll be bringing to Lincoln.
“We might have arguably the toughest first round game down at state,” Luedtke said. “They shoot it well, they’re really skilled, and they can mix it up man or zone.”
As I hinted at above, the Titans have as much three-point potential as any team in Class A, as they are tough to run with when they get rolling from downtown. Only top-ranked Bellevue West and Omaha Westside have attempted more threes than the 571 taken by Papio South, who holds a fairly efficient 36% three-point clip (8th in Class A). In direct connection with these numbers is the Titans’ impressive mark of 63.9 points per game, which nearly outscores Prep’s season average.
So who makes the offense go? The top answer is previously mentioned junior Daniel Brocaille, who leads the team in points per game (17.7), assists per game (3.1), and steals per game (1.7). He paced the Titans with 18 points in their matchup with Prep back on January 27, and will certainly need to make a few threes and continue his success at the free throw line (81% made) for his team to pull off another upset. Graham Cassoutt, a senior, has also found success with 12.4 points per game and 5.1 rebounds per game. Even more impressive has been his 41% success rate from three-point land and his hot streak over the last month of the season. He’s been a double-digit scorer in 9 consecutive games, making multiple threes in all but one of those contests. Additionally, he’s had 9 or more rebounds in 4 of those games, stepping up to fill the interior void left by the absence of senior forward Danair Dempsey, who has not played since January 29, the last time Papio South took a loss. Even without Dempsey dominating the paint, the Titans have fared very well, but they haven’t seen anything like the bigs of Creighton Prep, so it’ll be interesting to see who owns the paint on Tuesday.
How they Got Here: Creighton Prep
While many of us knew that Prep would be set up for success after losing only one prominent senior last year, I’m not sure anybody could have predicted that the Junior Jays would do what they’ve done this season. Playing an already challenging schedule with the added stress of the COVID-19 situation, the team passed test after test with flying colors, finishing the year as the second-ranked team in the state and the #23 team in the nation with a record of 22-2. Coach Luedtke knows he has a lot to be proud of with this team.
“Looking back and seeing everything we were able to do in a crazy world with COVID and having to navigate through the season, it’s been a really special year,” he said. “The guys have made it really special. They’ve left their legacy in Prep basketball.”
Starting the season as the third-ranked team in Class A, the Jr. Jays wasted no time proving that they were one of the top teams in Nebraska. They won each of their first six games going into the holiday tournament, with a mix of dominant blowout like the 62-40 win over Papillion-La Vista on December 5 and gritty, hard-fought wins such as the 42-40 victory over Millard West on December 12. One thing was apparent right off the bat: Creighton Prep could defend as well as anybody in the state. They held each of their first four opponents, two of them being top 10 team, to 40 points or less. After an 86-55 thrashing of Omaha North in first round of the holiday tournament, the Jr. Jays were set to take on rival Omaha Westside in a game that gave us our first glimpse of what the 2020-21 team was all about. After trailing 20-6 after the first quarter, Prep stormed back in the second quarter, making it a 30-28 game at halftime and winning it 61-57. Next up was a semifinal matchup with Bellevue West, the defending state champion, to close out 2020. Even though Prep couldn’t stop the Thunderbirds’ late three-point attack and fell by a score of 73-64, they kept the game within two possessions through each of the first three quarters, showing that they could easily compete with the top teams in the state.
Unlike Papillion-La Vista South, Creighton Prep had no struggles to begin 2021. They won seven consecutive games, including a 62-39 beatdown of Westside on January 22, which made Luedtke the winningest coach in the history of Prep basketball. While the offense was a bit more stagnant at times, the defense didn’t miss a beat, holding each of the first five 2021 opponents to under 45 points. The Jr. Jays also wound up with over 40 rebounds in three of those games, including 44 against Omaha South on January 8. To close out the month, Prep met Bellevue West, now the top-ranked team in Class A after beating Millard North, for a highly anticipated rematch at the Heider Center on January 30. In their biggest game of the season so far, the Jr. Jays were as good as ever at certain points, jumping out to an 11 point lead over the T-Birds once in the second quarter and again early in the fourth quarter. However, Wisconsin signee Chucky Hepburn was able to bring Bellevue West back, scoring 32 points and carrying the Thunderbirds to a 79-77 overtime victory. Despite the loss, many began to take a second look at the Jr. Jays as a big-time state contender, as they had now proven that they could hang with the very best on two separate occasions.
As pretty as December and January were, February began with a couple of near disasters for Prep. A 51-50 overtime win over a Papillion-La Vista team that Prep had already taken to the woodshed in December and a 54-37 win over Lincoln Northeast that was close until the final quarter didn’t look great on the resume, but they showed the Junior Jays’ ability to stay focused and finish games. After returning to normalcy with a dominant win over Burke, the Jr. Jays had a week to prepare for a stacked, second-ranked Millard North team. In their final mission to prove themselves as a top-tier team, Prep came out hot against the Mustangs, but found themselves down by 11 late in the 3rd quarter. It seemed that the wheels were coming off after a Hunter Sallis dunk, back-to-back Saint Thomas threes, and a technical foul on Luedtke, but Prep somehow collected themselves and exposed Millard North’s inability to finish games. After two Justin Sitti free throws with 4 seconds left, the Jr. Jays pulled off the improbable 76-75 victory in the most emotional game of the season by far. After that, Prep took over the #2 ranking and held fifth-ranked Central’s prolific offense to 39 points to close out the regular season. The district semifinal was dicey at times, as the Jr. Jays squeaked past Omaha Bryan with a 63-50 win, but Prep shut down any doubt with a 62-50 district final win over Elkhorn South in which they controlled the game from the very beginning. You can read more about Prep’s two district games in this past week’s edition of “Brendan on Basketball”.
Prep’s Plan of Attack
If you haven’t watched a single second of Prep basketball this year, it won’t take you long to realize the strength of this team: defense. So many teams, even some of the better offenses in the state, have been rendered powerless by Junior Jay defenders. Fittingly enough, defense was a large part of Prep’s 66-54 win over Papio South back on January 27, as Justin Sitti came up with 8 steals, the most a Jr. Jay has had in a game this year.
“I think we defend as well as anybody in the state and when we’re at our best defending, it leads to us scoring the ball really well,” Coach Luedtke said. “If you can defend and score the ball well, that’s gonna be tough to match.”
Indeed, the Jr. Jays have played some of their best basketball this season when they turn defense into offense, creating fast breaks and easy lay-ups from steals and deflections. They were able to force the Titans out of their rhythm and hold them to just 14 first half points, so Prep’s defense will need to be quick and active from the opening tip to get a head start against Papio South.
When the Jr. Jays have been able to set up in the frontcourt and work the offense, they’ve often thrived as well. Prep is brilliant at setting up open three-point looks by driving into the paint and kicking it out. They’ve also used their intelligence and awareness to create opportunities, as guards Justin Sitti and Brendan Buckley have mastered the cross-court pass, reading the defense perfectly from sideline to sideline and finding open teammates. Papio South plays aggressive defense that is quick to the ball, but if Prep can get them to overcommit, opportunities should be abundant.
Even if the three-pointer isn’t available or just isn’t working for the Jr. Jays, their bigs on the inside can take over a game. Junior Luke Jungers, who stands at 6’8” has become a highly efficient three-level scorer, making for a tough matchup inside and outside the three-point arc. His fellow forward, senior AJ Rollins, can be an absolute nightmare in the paint. Based on what the defense gives him, he tends to either brute force his way in and draw fouls, or surprise defense with his jump hook shot, both with a high rate of success. Jungers and Rollins each put up 14 points in the first Papio South matchup, and that was with Danair Dempsey on the floor, so the two of them could be in for very strong performances on Tuesday.
As we’ve seen throughout the season, Creighton Prep basketball is anything but a one or two-man show. Any given player, even guys off the bench, can take over a game and will the Jr. Jays to victory. The man that’s been doing that recently is Mai’Jhe Wiley, who has jumped to third on the team in points per game (9.4) after 22 and 18 in the two district games last weekend. His signature drives to the basket against Papio’s quick defenders should be a very fun matchup to watch. Luke Jungers has been a fantastic scorer all season (12.4 PPG), and bounced back from a scoreless performance with 19 points on Monday, which the Jr. Jays hope will foreshadow some big numbers at state. AJ Rollins has heated up as well on the inside with 9+ points in 4 straight games, as he continues to lead the team in rebounds per game (6.6). Brendan Buckley has cooled off substantially, still searching for his first game with 10 or more points since January 30. However, all it takes is a couple of early threes or tough finishes and he’ll be in a good position to provide for the offense. Finally, there’s Justin Sitti, the man who’ll see the most action as he quarterbacks the offense and plays some of the most active defense in the state. We all know what he can do as a defender (2.1 steals per game) and a passer (3.3 assists per game), but one thing to consider is his output in big games. Sitti has scored at least 13 points in each of the four top 5 matchups the Jr. Jays have played this year, so he certainly has a knack for the bright lights.
What’s Different from Last Year?
Last year’s Prep team certainly accomplished some special things over the course of the regular season. They took down top-ranked Central, beat eventual state runner-up Millard North, and even knocked off soon-to-be champion Bellevue West in the holiday tournament. But it was an early exit for the Jr. Jays in Lincoln as they fell 74-70 in the first round to Omaha Westside. This year’s team, though, is very different. “This year, I think we’re more focused and we haven’t had those lapses as much to where it costs us a game,” Luedtke said. “These guys have been driven, they’ve kept their eye on the prize, and they’re always trying to compete and get better.” Lapses were certainly an issue last season, as the Jr. Jays would often take down a top-tier team, only to lose to an unranked opponent or be beaten badly by a fellow top 10 team the next week. That simply has not been the case this year. Sure, Prep has had some instances where they’ve played dangerously close to some seemingly inferior opponents. But they always pulled those games out in the end, with their only two losses coming in close games to the top team in the state, Bellevue West. Not much, if anything, has fazed the Jr. Jays this year, setting them up for a strong performance in Lincoln.
As well as Prep has played this year, we all know the state championship won’t just be handed to them. With only 3 games separating the Jr. Jays from the trophy, it becomes a question of what they will need to do to rise above the rest. Justin Sitti mentioned defense as the defining factor, and Brendan Buckley said the team simply needs to outwork all other contenders. Meanwhile, Coach Luedtke has several ideas in mind.
“I think we have to do three things. We’ve got to defend, we’ve got to value the ball and be really efficient, and we’ve got to do the little things,” he said. “We have to match every team’s intensity, but then we’ve got to do those three things to have a chance to win it.”
As any of Prep’s past opponents will tell you, if the Jr. Jays can bring their A-game in those three areas, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a team that can beat them.
The boys’ Class A quarterfinal game between #3 Creighton Prep and #6 Papillion-La Vista South will be played at 8:30 PM on Tuesday, March 9 at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln. Tickets can be purchased here on the NSAA website. Single-game tickets are $5 for students and $7 for adults. Additionally, the NSAA is offering an all-day pass for $25 if you’d like to check out any other games on Tuesday. If you can’t make it down to Lincoln, you can watch the game on the NFHS Network. Since the Jr. Jays are the higher-seeded team, the Prep student section will be on the North end of the court (the side without an upper deck of seating). Stay safe and enjoy the game!