It was a wild end to the season at the girls state basketball tournament, in large part because of the wild card.
Four of the six champions reached state via that route, rebounding from subdistrict or district losses to take home the titles. It's the highest number of wild-card champions since the Nebraska School Activities Association adopted the wild-card format for all six classes in 2002.
A quick breakdown of past wild-card champions:
2002: Two (Freeman, Lincoln Christian). 2003: None. 2004: None. 2005: Two (Humphrey St. Francis, South Sioux City). 2006: One (Bellevue East). 2007: One (Crofton). 2008: One (Ewing). 2009: None. 2010: Two (Sandy Creek, Wahoo Neumann). 2011: Two (Howells, Homer). 2012: One (Sandy Creek).
That brings us to this season and the four wild cards that were crowned champions Saturday — Grand Island Northwest, Pierce, Pender and Wynot. The other two winners, Class A Lincoln Southeast and Class C-2 Crofton, were district champions.
Coaches whose teams reached state through the wild card often talk about how that loss refocused their club for state. That's quite possible, and this year's surprising state tournament seems to reinforce that.
One team that benefited from the wild card was Class D-2 Wynot, which captured its third straight state title. After the championship, Blue Devils coach Steve Wieseler was asked about his team's district final loss against Osmond — a game in which his team scored a season-low 34 points.
“We knew (by the wild-card points) that we were going to be in the state tournament already,” Wieseler said. “We didn't play our best that night.”
There can be some mind games played as a result of the wild card, and it's not uncommon to see a team that knows it has a state bid locked up lose to a more motivated opponent in a district final. That loss can sometimes pay dividends at state, especially if the team gets a chance to avenge that district final loss.
That's what happened when Wynot got another crack at Osmond in the D-2 final. The Blue Devils fell behind early but bounced back for a 60-52 victory.
Moral of the story? It doesn't matter how you get to state ... just so long as you get there.
This was a tough tourney to handicap, as only Crofton managed to win a title as the No. 1 seed. The 27-0 Warriors also were the only team to finish the season undefeated.
Southeast was seeded third in Class A, Grand Island Northwest was third in B, Pierce was fifth in C-1, Pender was second in D-1 and Wynot was third in D-2.
The tournament also had its share of wild finishes, such as:
>> Omaha Central 61, Millard North 60: A technical foul was whistled in the final second against the Eagles, who barely managed to hang on after the Mustangs made two free throws and just missed on a last-second shot.
>> Bellevue West 53, Central 50: The defending champs fell, but not without a fight. The Eagles had a couple of chances to take the lead in the final minute but the shots rolled off the rim.
>> Take your pick in Class B: There were two overtime games (Seward over Holdrege and Norris over Beatrice) and an even more compelling double-overtime final (Grand Island Northwest over Norris). Other tight games in this class were Norris edging Gretna 44-43 and top-seeded Beatrice getting past eighth-seeded South Sioux City 59-56.
>> Both semifinals were close in Class D-1 with Pender slipping past Emerson-Hubbard 52-48 and O'Neill St. Mary's ousting top seed West Point GACC 58-52. The Pendragons went on to defeat the Cardinals 42-36 to capture the school's first title.
>> Wynot slipped past Lindsay Holy Family 43-40 in a D-2 semifinal, then rallied from a 14-point deficit to defeat Osmond in the final.
Southeast's redemption: Lincoln Southeast lost last year's state title on a late free throw, something that drove the Knights all season.
While the team got sidetracked a few times and lost three, the squad maintained focus on its ultimate goal. Southeast won its last 12 games and grabbed the Class A title, one year after the heartbreaking loss.
Winning coaches: While the state championship coaches often deflect praise to their players, these six deserve a pat on the back for getting the job done.
So congratulations to Southeast's Kara Graham, Grand Island Northwest's Mike Herzberg, Pierce's Darren Sindelar, Crofton's Aaron Losing, Pender's Larry Ballinger and Wynot's Wieseler.
Special kudos to Graham, who is the third woman and the first in 35 years to coach the girls Class A champion. Leona Penner of Lincoln East was the first in 1977 and Karen Peterson of Omaha Burke was the second in 1978.
Prediction update: With all of those upsets going on, the crystal ball managed to correctly select one champion — Crofton. We'll see if colleague Stu Pospisil fares better this week with his boys selections.
Attention, coaches: All-Nebraska sheets need to be returned by March 11. Coaches of teams in Class A, Class B and the Omaha area also are asked to submit their final statistics by the same date.
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