OGALLALA – The Sidney boys basketball team has faced its share of adversity in the last couple weeks. They found themselves facing more adversity Monday night in the Class B, District 6 Tournament semifinals, but the Red Raiders managed to rise to the occasion when it mattered most.
Cutter O’Connell, a senior who’s hit a number of big shots throughout his career, hit the game-winner with 1 second remaining, a short jumper that gave the Raiders a thrilling 54-53 victory over Alliance and a spot in Tuesday’s championship game.
“It’s thrilling because I knew that if we lost this game it was probably going to be the last game we played this season,” O’Connell said. “I’ve played with these six seniors my whole life, and I know how bad they want it and how hard they’ve worked. None of us wanted this season to be over.”
Sidney will now quickly refocus for Tuesday’s district tournament title game. The Red Raiders’ opponent is Scottsbluff, which moved past Gering 65-41 in Monday’s other semifinal game. Tipoff between the Omaha World-Herald No. 7-rated Raiders (22-3) and No. 3 Bearcats (21-3) is set for 6 p.m at Prairie View School in Ogallala. It will be the third clash of the season between those schools. Scottsbluff won the first meeting 58-45, but Sidney gained redemption on Feb. 6 with a 43-41 victory.
Tuesday’s winner receives an automatic berth into next week’s state tournament in Lincoln.
“They want to win as much as we do, so be prepared for a good one,” O’Connell said.
If it’s anything like Monday’s battle between Sidney and Alliance, fans will be treated to a major barn burner.
The last 4 minutes of Monday’s game was full of suspense, and it didn’t end until the final second ticked off the clock.
After O’Connell hit a 3-pointer to give Sidney a 52-48 lead with 1:15 to play, Alliance senior Baden Shelmadine answered with a 3-pointer to close the deficit to just 52-51 with 57 seconds to go.
Alliance managed to get the ball back with a chance to go ahead, and Baden came through once again, hitting a jumper with 9 seconds to play to put the Bulldogs in front 53-52.
After Sidney called a timeout with 8.3 seconds left, the Raiders worked the ball in to senior Tyler Wintholz, who dribbled down toward the right corner before reversing back toward the free-throw line. With only about 2-3 seconds left on the clock, Wintholz fed a pass to O’Connell, who was sprinting down the lane. O’Connell quickly put up a short jumper, and the shot went through the hoop with about 1 second remaining. Time then ran out as Sidney players, coaches, and fans erupted into celebration.
“I trust all of our guys with my life, and Ty made a great, great pass,” said O’Connell, who also hit a game-winning shot – a 3-pointer – to beat Lexington earlier this season. “I shouldn’t be getting the praise. I had a layup, but Ty made that happen.”
He added, “I think it just shows the resilience of our team and that everybody isn’t going to quit no matter what.”
O’Connell said he was plenty nervous in those final moments, knowing that time was almost out.
“Ty dribbled out there for what felt like 12 seconds, and then he came around the corner and I was like, ‘Ty, you’ve got to shoot it. You’ve got to shoot it.’ And then he found me, and I kind of just flicked it up there because I thought we had like .1 seconds left. I was worried that I missed it, but it went in.”
It was certainly an emotional moment for the Raiders, and not just because the shot kept Sidney’s district tournament championship hopes and a second straight state tourney berth alive. The victory helped ease some of the frustration that the Raiders have felt recently. Before Monday’s game, Sidney had suffered back-to-back losses – 59-42 against Hastings St. Cecilia on Feb. 13 and 53-45 against Alliance on Feb. 19.
“It’s been a rough couple weeks for us, just going through some adversity and trying to figure out where our offense was,” O’Connell said. “I think there was so much stress on everybody from last year. But I think this game is maybe going to calm us down, and we’ll be ready for tomorrow against a great Scottsbluff team. We’re looking forward to it.”
Monday’s loss was certainly heartbreaking for Alliance, which has been on a tear down the stretch. The Bulldogs, who started the season 1-6, had won 10 of 11 games going into Monday’s tilt. Alliance (13-8) even came into the game rated No. 9 in the World-Herald’s Class B poll.
“There’s nothing to hold our head down for,” Alliance coach Roger Trennepohl said.
O’Connell also praised Alliance’s effort.
“Give credit to Alliance. I’m mean, holy cow. From the beginning of the year to the end of the year, that coach got them shaped up real quick,” he said. “That’s a tough team. They gave us everything they had.”
O’Connell said Alliance’s athleticism made things tough for the Raiders.
“You watch them in warmups, and they’re over there doing crazy dunks. We’re pretty athletic, too, but not compared to them,” he said. “Give credit to those players and how hard they fought. I feel bad for them, but at the same time I’m excited to move on and have a chance to win districts tomorrow.”
It was hard to think about the game going down to the wire after watching Sidney surge at the beginning of the contest. The Raiders built a 10-1 advantage in the first 3 minutes and still led 13-5 at the end of the first quarter. Sidney made it 19-8 early in the second stanza before Alliance mounted a comeback. The Bulldogs eventually whittled the deficit down to 23-22 at halftime.
Alliance’s second-quarter performance was a reflection of how it’s been playing in recent weeks.
“It was just a matter of finding the chemistry, finding their identity,” Trennepohl said. “And once they found what that was and bought into that, we just got better and better. Defensively, we were good, even early in the year. But we weren’t good at rebounding. When we improved the rebounding at Christmas, then offensively we were better because what we can do is run. We’re very good in transition. Tonight Sidney made us play half-court basketball, and once we settled down and started reversing the ball and looking for advantages from the ball reversal, we started scoring baskets. And that shows you a team that’s become very mature.”
Trennepohl said this was a fun group to work with this season. He praised the contributions from all of his players, including those from the seniors – Baden Shelmadine, Cody Henderson, Cole Randall, Michael Gomez, and Klayton Nordeen.
“I’ve got nothing but great things to say about my seniors,” he said. “I’m real proud of my guys. It’s a great bunch of kids. I’m really going to miss those seniors. These seniors started something, and they started it three years ago with the work ethic they’ve put in in the summer and what they’ve expected from each other.”
Alliance junior Austin Luger led all scorers in the game with 25 points.
Sidney’s leading scorer was O’Connell with 18 points. Wintholz finished with 17.
Alliance (13-8) 6 16 10 21 – 53
Sidney (22-3) 14 9 15 16 – 54
Brendan Brehmer 2, Baden Shelmadine 8, Brody Brennan 8, Austin Luger 25, Klayton Nordeen 4, Jack Matulka 6.
Brady Radcliffe 5, Mitch Porter 2, Ryan Birner 3, Jake Heeren 5, Cutter O’Connell 18, Tyler Wintholz 17, Zack Means 4.