LINCOLN — Forget history. Forget legacies. Win this game, Eric Behrens told them. Beat this team.
Treat today, he told his Central Eagles before Saturday’s Class A championship game, like a shirts-and-skins tussle at the Butler-Gast YMCA.
Behrens worried that if his players got distracted by playing together one last time — if they thought too much about culminating a quest to win four straight Class A titles — the nerves might just paralyze them.
He should’ve known better.
What separates Central isn’t just talent and athleticism. It isn’t Akoy Agau and four other Division I prospects. It’s a willingness to embrace the big stage. Rise to the occasion. Put on a show.
Saturday wasn’t a game, it was a performance — the closest thing to the Harlem Globetrotters we’ll see in high school basketball.
Central emerged from the locker room equal parts skill and style. Yellow hair, neon shoes, mismatched socks. Immediately the Eagles started dunking. Then they danced. All before tip-off.
If anyone thought Papillion-La Vista — an excellent team — had a chance to pull an upset, that was erased with 2:20 left in the first quarter when Agau stuffed all-state forward Brett Dougherty, twice on the same possession. Dougherty, the rest of the day, was a shell of his typical self.
The shot-blocking was almost as intimidating as the ball pressure. The Eagles’ feet are so quick — their hands so fast — it ruins any semblance of a game plan. It’s like trying to run an offense inside a car wash.
Then there’s the offensive rebounding. Central attacks the glass in waves. Who gets the tip-in depends only on where the ball bounces off the rim.
Central is without a true floor general. It doesn’t have a pure shooter. At times its offense lacks rhythm. And it still might be the best team Nebraska’s ever produced. How does that happen? Balance. Versatility. Chemistry.
On a given night, you can ask five fans who Central’s best player is and you might get five different answers. Or put another way, one person could watch Central five different times and name five different MVPs.
Saturday the leading scorer was Deandre Hollins-Johnson, the only member of the rotation who isn’t a D-I prospect. How many other times had Hollins-Johnson led the Eagles in scoring this year? Once.
“Nobody cares,” Behrens said. “They just want to win.”
It shows up in their passing. Tra-Deon Hollins flips the ball behind his back to KJ Scott. Nick Billingsley dishes in traffic to Tre’Shawn Thurman, who dunks the ball and gets a technical for hanging on the rim. (That doesn’t happen to the Globetrotters).
By the second half, the highlight reel was already packed. Then Tra-Deon came from 15 feet away and stuffed Dougherty from behind. Then Scott connected with Tra-Deon for an alley-oop dunk.
It was almost comical watching Behrens direct his team to play vanilla while everybody else in the arena wanted the Globetrotters.
“There’s a give and take there,” Behrens said. “We’re trying to find a happy medium.”
On a 2-on-1 break, Scott leaped and — while in mid-air — took the ball between his legs and lobbed it to Agau for a sure dunk. Except Akoy missed it. Calm down, Behrens pleaded.
But if anyone deserved to cut loose, it was the Eagles. They’d carried the pressure and expectations all year. They watched Papillion-La Vista’s crowd rush the court after a January upset, Central’s first against an in-state foe in 23 months.
At the 2:49 mark, Behrens took out his starters. They spent the final moments of their high school careers rooting on the reserves — and laughing at Akoy’s missed dunk. Behrens even cracked a few smiles.
He’s worn the same blue shirt and tie for all seven state championship games. The other 364 days every year, they never leave the closet. Maybe he’ll get to wear them again next year. Maybe not. But this group — this team — will stick in his mind.
“These guys have been an absolute joy to work with,” he said.
After the final horn, the Eagles received their medals, hoisted their new trophy, danced and shouted — Akoy even plunged into the student section. Then they gathered for a team photo outside the locker room.
Behrens had one quick question before the flash: Are we smiling?
Akoy’s answer: “Show them pearly whites, boys.”
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