LINCOLN — It might not have been pretty, but the result was so beautiful that it nearly brought tears to the eyes of O’Neill coach Seth Kallhoff.
Kallhoff’s Class C-1 No. 7 Eagles bruised their way to a 49-35 win over eighth-ranked Pierce on Thursday morning in the first round of the boys state basketball tournament at the Devaney Center.
O’Neill advanced to Friday’s 9 a.m. semifinal and a date with top-ranked Wahoo Neumann.
Kallhoff left the floor with an excited team after evening the four-game season series on the biggest stage, the program’s first state tournament appearance in 20 years.
“These boys have earned it,” said the Eagles’ coach. “The pride I have for those guys, and the joy I have coaching them just kind of came out of me at the end there.”
O’Neill dug in early, limiting Pierce to seven points in the first half. The Bluejays were 3 of 20 from the floor before halftime, including 1 of 11 shooting in the second quarter.
“We had a little bit of a deer-in-the-headlight looks early on,” Pierce coach Mike Emory said. “And then didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half. Even when we got looks inside we didn’t finish them.”
A lead that ballooned to as high as 19 in the third was cut to nine on two occasions in the final 3½ minutes, but the Bluejays would get no closer.
Taggart Bailey scored 16 of his game-high 21 points in the second half trying to lead that comeback, but found open looks hard to come by much of the game.
“Having played them four times,” Emory said, “obviously they knew who our main weapons were.”
O’Neill got 11 points from Alexander Thramer. Tyler Regan added nine for the Eagles, who have won two games at state once in school history — in 1940.
Pierce (21-6)..........4 3 10 18—35
O’Neill (23-4).........9 11 10 19—49
P: Austin Freeman 3, Brady Starkel 2, Walker Raabe 8, Taggart Bailey 21, Braydan Waldner 1.
O: Alexander Thramer 11, Justin Appleby 8, Jake Young 9, Tyson Hostert 4, Tyler Regan 9, Walker Liewer 8.