Bridgeport's Eric Stevens

Bridgeport's Eric Stevens passes during a basketball game against Bayard on Saturday in Bridgeport.

BRIDGEPORT — Just a couple weeks after winning one conference championship, the Bridgeport boys basketball team is a heavy favorite to capture another when the Western Trails Conference Tournament tips off Thursday.

The Bulldogs, who won the South Platte Valley Association Conference Tournament for the first time in school history on Jan. 23 in North Platte, are the defending champions of this week’s event. Bridgeport, ranked No. 4 in Class C-2 by the Omaha World-Herald, is the top seed with an overall record of 16-2 and a 10-game winning streak in tow.

Among the reasons for the Bulldogs’ recent run of success, Bridgeport head coach Nick Broz said it all begins with his squad’s focus and play on the defensive end of the court.

“We’ve really come around defensively since the Alliance Tournament. We’ve found what kind of style we want to play and we’ve really fine tuned on those details,” Broz said. “We’ve kind of narrowed our focus on the defensive end and we’re seeing a lot of positives on that side of the floor.”

As the No. 1 seed, Bridgeport earned a bye into a semifinal game on Friday at 5:30 p.m. at Western Nebraska Community College in Scottsbluff. The Bulldogs await the winner of today’s first-round game between No. 5 Mitchell (4-13) and No. 4 Kimball (6-10). That contest will be played tonight at 6:30 p.m. in Kimball. Today’s other opening-round games include No. 2 Hemingford (10-5) hosting No. 7 Morrill (3-12) and No. 3 Gordon-Rushville (10-5) hosting No. 6 Bayard (2-13).

Friday’s semifinals at Cougar Palace are slated for 5:30 and 7:15 p.m. The winners will play for the championship on Saturday at 7:15 p.m., while the losers will face off in the third-place game at 3:45 p.m.

Bridgeport has advanced to the title game three straight years. Last year’s first-place finish came after two straight runner-up finishes to Kimball in 2013 and 2014. The Bulldogs’ senior-heavy group would like nothing more than to defend its crown.

“It’s definitely one of the goals this group wanted to accomplish,” Broz said. “These seniors want to find a way to get back to the championship game and end their careers as back-to-back champs.”

Unlike this week’s girls division of the tournament, in which three teams are state ranked and five sport winning records, Bridgeport’s been the cream of the crop on the boys’ side since the start of the season. The Bulldogs are 7-0 against conference opponents with a whopping average margin of victory of 36.2 points. Bridgeport is 2-0 against Kimball, Mitchell and Bayard and 1-0 against Hemingford. The closest of those was a 14-point victory at Kimball on Jan. 15. While those dominating results might lead to overconfidence for certain teams, Broz said the veteran leadership and experience of this year’s squad keeps the Bulldogs focused and grounded.

“As a coach you do worry about those type of things a little bit, but the thing about this group is they’ve always been locked in when we get into tournament play and they’re really good in those situations,” he said. “This is a very mature, senior-laden group that has a lot of ambition to close out their careers with a victory Saturday night in the championship game.”

Bridgeport’s lone two losses this season both came against talented Class B opponents Alliance and Gering. Gering was ranked No. 9 when it handed Bridgeport a 61-48 setback on Dec. 22. Alliance, which is ranked No. 10 this week, handed Bridgeport a 51-48 loss on Dec. 30. Bridgeport hasn’t suffered a loss since the calendar year of 2016 started.

“Any time you play against two really good teams like Gering and Alliance, you’re going to find out a lot about yourself,” Broz said. “It was great competition for our kids.”

Senior Quentin Baxter leads a trio of Bulldog scorers averaging in double figures. The 6-foot-6 swingman is averaging 18.4 points per game with a team-high total of 37 3-pointers. He also leads Bridgeport with 2.7 assists and 2.6 steals per game.

Wyatt Pankowski and Andrew Nelson are also double-figure scorers for the Bulldogs. Pankowski, a 6-3 senior post, is averaging 10.8 points per contest. Nelson, a 6-6 senior forward, follows right behind with 10.2 points per game. Nelson is Bridgeport’s top rebounder and shot blocker with 5.2 boards and 1.1 blocks per contest.

No matter who the Bulldogs square off with in Friday’s semifinals, Broz said it will be a challenge.

“We’re just looking at it as we will have to find a way to beat a team for the third time this year,” he said. “Any time you play a team three or more times, it gets difficult.”

WTC Boys Tournament

Thursday’s First Round

No. 1 seed Bridgeport, bye

No. 5 Mitchell at No. 4 Kimball, 6:30 p.m.

No. 6 Bayard at No. 3 Gordon-Rushville, 6 p.m.

No. 7 Morrill at No. 2 Hemingford, 6 p.m.

Friday’s Semifinals at WNCC

Bridgeport vs. Kimball/Mitchell winner, 5:30 p.m.

Bayard/Gordon-Rushville winner vs. Morrill/Hemingford winner, 6 p.m.

Saturday’s Third-Place Game at WNCC

3:45 p.m.

Saturday’s Championship at WNCC

7:15 p.m.

WTC Girls Tournament

Thursday’s First Round

No. 1 seed Hemingford, bye

No. 5 Gordon-Rushville at No. 4 Morrill, 5:30 p.m.

No. 6 Bridgeport at No. 3 Kimball, 5 p.m.

No. 7 Bayard at No. 2 Mitchell, 6 p.m.

Friday’s Semifinals at WNCC

Hemingford vs. Gordon-Rushville/Morrill winner, 2 p.m.

Kimball/Bridgeport winner vs. Mitchell/Bayard winner, 3:45 p.m.

Saturday’s Third-Place Game at WNCC

2 p.m.

Saturday’s Championship at WNCC

5:30 p.m.

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