Norfolk entered Saturday night's game struggling from the free-throw line, shooting about 54 percent.
That number will rise considerably following the seventh-ranked Panthers' 72-62 win over eighth-ranked Omaha Burke. Norfolk sank 32 of 39 foul shots (82 percent) and made its final 19 points from the line to put away the host Bulldogs.
“It was nice to see that improvement tonight,'' Panthers coach Ben Ries said. “But I was impressed by the way Burke played tonight because they came out and hit us square in the mouth.''
The Bulldogs stayed close in the first half despite playing without leading scorer Trey Carr, who was making an official football recruiting visit to South Dakota State. Burke led 15-8 after the first quarter and trailed by one at halftime.
But Norfolk took control of the game in the third quarter, outscoring the Bulldogs 18-8. That included a 10-0 run, with eight of those points scored by 6-foot-8 junior forward Tyler Hagedorn.
“I always tell myself not to force it and let the game come to me,” he said. “Things went a lot better in that second half.”
Hagedorn, held to two points in the first half, finished with a game-high 18. He was part of the Panthers free-throw brigade that sank 20 of 24 in the fourth quarter as Norfolk continued to make the Bulldogs pay for their fouls.
“I knew if we got in a free throw contest with them that it wasn't going to be a winning proposition,” Burke coach Ben Holling said. “But I was proud of the way our guys battled, playing without Trey.”
The Bulldogs inched within 63-55 with 1:40 left, but two free throws by freshman Travis Larson and three by Hagedorn boosted the lead back to 13. Burke couldn't get closer than 10 the rest of the way.
Larson, who finished with eight points, is part of a strong freshman trio of reserves for the Panthers. Lane McCallum had 14 points and Logan Strom added 10 points and 10 rebounds.
“We've got three really nice freshmen this season,” Ries said. “It's uncommon to ask them to contribute at this level already, but they're doing a nice job.”
Brandon Villalpando added 13 for Norfolk, which boosted its record to 4-0.
Sophomore Noah Fant scored 15 points and had a team-high 10 rebounds for the 2-2 Bulldogs while sophomore Darnell Mitchell chipped in 10 points.
Burke returns to action Friday night at Papillion-La Vista South, while Norfolk will play next Saturday at Lincoln East.
Norfolk (4-0) ......................................................... 8 21 18 25—72
At Omaha Burke (2-2) .......................................... 15 13 8 26—62
N: Travis Larson 8, Brandon Villalpando 13, Lane McCallum 14, Stefan Medel 3, Tyler Hagedorn 18, Taylor Reedy 6, Logan Strom 10.
B: Jack Dresslar 5, David Sanders 3, Dartan Henderson 8, Darnell Mitchell 10, Ryan Poppen 7, Wanjang Tut 9, Nick McCulloch 3, Noah Fant 15, Jarron Bradley 2.