A district grand slam for Scottsbluff Bearcats: Bearcats lead top-seeded Bulldogs from start to finish, win 4th straight B-6 title
     2014-03-06      By Terry Gaston    sports@geringcitizen.com
Photo by Sheila Weber/Sheila Weber Photography - Scottsbluff freshman Landon Walker (No. 43) lends assistance as teammate sophomore Austin Clarkson (No. 55) gets ready for a basket and Gering junior Joses Palomo (No. 11) and senior Grant Olsson (No. 42) eye the play. The Bearcats defeated top seeded Gering in Tuesday night’s district final. See page B10 for more.  
SCOTTSBLUFF -- It's becoming commonplace for Scottsbluff boys' basketball teams and fans in early March.

Another trip to Lincoln.

Despite Gering's decisive advantage in senior experience and No. 1 seed in the District B-6 tournament, the youth-laden Bearcats rose from the middle, No. 3 seed and cut down the Cougar Palace nets for the fourth straight year.

Scottsbluff scored two early 3-pointers and never let the Bulldogs even tie the Bearcats, who led by double digits the entire fourth quarter en route to sealing a 67-53 victory.

Despite watching his team begin the year with a 67-44 loss to Gering on Dec. 5, going 2-1 in the season-opening Western Conference Invitational Tournament, Scottsbluff coach Tony Siske said he could sense that his retooled Bearcats just might have the elements to make a run at a fourth straight district title.

"It started at the beginning of the year, honestly," said Siske, whose team played some tough out-of-state competition in the tough Campbell County Classic in Gillette, Wyo. and was 3-3 afterward.

"I knew it was going to be tough, but I thought this team was definitely capable of doing it. They've stayed together as a team, they improved every day and have come a long ways."

With just one senior in Beau Lofink, who missed most of the season with a foot injury, the Bearcats grew with improved sophomore post in Austin Clarkson and a tough freshman tandem of inside man Landon Walker and outside gunner Dru Kuxhausen.

"Just practicing every day, our kids help out each other," Siske said. "We have some juniors and sophomores on our roster who have been through it as freshmen too, so they I'm sure they help those other guys out."

And the reward for the hard work?

"We get to go to Lincoln again," Siske said. "They're all special. This is fun as it was last year, and no different I guess. And I'm happy that Beau gets to go down there and do this."

Scottsbluff took a quick 10-2 lead in the first 4:32 and led 15-13 after one quarter.

By the end of the first half, the Bearcats were ahead 30-21 and had balanced scoring in junior Trent Harris with eight points, Clarkson with seven, and junior Jackson Hinze, sophomore Dillon Hernandez and Kuxhausen with six apiece.

"They shot the crap out of the ball and pulled us out of our zone," Gering coach Randy Plummer said. "It's tough to cover with a zone in a bigger (college) gym because they can just stretch you out and then they get inside. That's been our strength all year long, and you just can't sit in a zone when they're up by 15 points, or you're going to look silly."

"They threw at least three defenses at us, a 2-3, a 1-3-1 and man," Siske said. "And then they pressed and threw a trapping man. I think we're prepared for any defense that a team can throw, that we have something for them."

Plummer said the Bulldogs still had reason for optimism at halftime -- that is, until Harris and Company took over for Scottsbluff.

For the second straight night, after Scottsbluff took a 57-50 win over No. 2 seed Sidney, Harris ignited the Bearcats in the second half. On Monday, Harris scored all 14 of his points after halftime in leading Scottsbluff's comeback from a 41-35 deficit at the break.

On Tuesday, Harris scored 13 of the Bearcats' 15 third-quarter points and dished an inside assist to Clarkson on their other basket.

"Trent played great in the second half, attacked the basket well and made great plays for us," Siske said of Harris, who finished with a game-high 23 points. Clarkson and Kuxhausen added 11 points apiece.

"Trent Harris is just a nightmare to try to stop," Plummer said. "Christian (Groskopf, one of Gering's seven seniors) is quick and tall and lanky, and he is as good a defender as we have. But (Harris) just went past him and is just a fantastic player. All you can do is get out of his way and hope that you're not too far behind him to zone him.

"He played a great game, and they all did. Scottsbluff, to their credit, played great. I hope they do well at state. I think they probably will."

While the Bulldogs (19-6) finished sixth in the Nebraska Activities Association's power points, they were shut out of a wild-card berth in the state tournament because Districts B-2 and B-4 had a lock on the top four power-point totals.

District B-2 champion Elkhorn South (24-0) and runner-up Omaha Skutt Catholic (19-6), had automatic and wild-card berths locked up heading into Tuesday's finals.

The same was the case for District B-4, with champion Beatrice (20-2) and York (22-2) locked into the top four of the power points.

Thus Tuesday's District B-6 final was a winner-take-all situation for the championship and the one available, automatic berth into next week's Class B State Tournament.

Plummer did not seem to be preoccupied by missing out on a trip to state by one wild-card spot.

"It's painful because you know that there will never be that group of kids in the same locker room before and after games," Plummer said. "That's the pain that you break up this family that we had as a team. Everybody goes their separate ways, but it was fun all year.

"Everybody except for one team is going to end up with a painful loss at the end, and the higher up you get the more painful they get. We'll live with it. Sure, we wanted to go to state, but I never really figured that qualifying for state is the only thing that you measure your season by.

"We provided a lot of excitement, played some great basketball, and our community and our students were absolutely the best support we could ask for. It's painful right now, but I love what we did this year."

Senior post Grant Olsson scored a team-high 20 points in leading the Bulldogs. Junior Joses Palomo bagged two 3-pointers on his way to scoring 12 points. Groskopf had six points and 11 rebounds in his quest of slowing down Harris and the rest of the Bearcats.

Scottsbluff finished the third quarter with Harris dishing off to Clarkson to extend the Bearcats' lead to seven, and then Harris hit the 13-point mark in the period with a 3-pointer that gave Scottsbluff a 55-45 lead entering the final frame.

After Gering missed on its opening chance of the fourth quarter, Scottsbluff went into a stall offense and ran the clock down to 6:23. After Kuxhausen hit a 3-pointer with 5:30 remaining, giving the Bearcats a 60-47 advantage, Gering never saw a closer deficit the rest of the way.

Scottsbluff build a largest lead of 67-49 with 1:48 left. After Gering connected on four free throws, the Bearcat reserves ran out the final 48 seconds -- and Siske allowed himself to throw a fist pump of excitement with less than 20 seconds to go.

"Finally," he said.

Scottsbluff is making its 37th state trip overall and its fourth straight state trip, and fifth in six years, under Siske in his seventh year as the Bearcats' head coach.

Scottsbluff takes an official NSAA record of 16-8 into the state tournament. The Bearcats have one additional loss, to Bismarck, N.D.-Century at Gillette in December, which does not count in their NSAA power point ratings because of the teams' unshared state border.

The Bearcats are the No. 5 seed for the Class B State Tournament and will play Skutt in next Thursday's first-round game at 9:45 a.m. at the new Pinnacle Bank Arena.

"They're going to be tough," Siske said. "But we're there and we have a shot."

Scottsbluff will be looking to duplicate its runs to the championship game from 2012, when the Bearcats won it all, and last year, finishing second to South Sioux City.

The other Class B first-round game in Scottsbluff and Skutt's side of the bracket has No. 1 seed Elkhorn South against No. 8 Grand Island Northwest (11-16), winner of a District B-5 that had all five teams with sub-.500 records. The Elkhorn South-Northwest game will be Thursday at Pinnacle Bank Arena at 8 a.m.

In the other side of the bracket, which will be played at the Bob Devaney Sports Center, No. 2 seed Beatrice will face Omaha Roncalli Catholic (14-11) at 6 p.m. and No. 3 seed York will face No. 6 Lincoln Pius X (15-7) at 7:45 p.m.

The Scottsbluff-Skutt and Elkhorn South-Northwest winners will play Friday at Pinnacle Bank Arena at 1 p.m., with the other semifinal at 2:45 p.m. Friday's semifinal losers will play for third place at 9 a.m. at Lincoln North Star High School, with the championship game at noon at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

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