NORFOLK, Neb. — At the top of the pregame checklist on the whiteboard in the Omaha Central locker room was the word “composure.”
“When I talked to the kids before the game about my five keys to the game, I said composure could be all five,” Central coach Ben Holling said.
His Eagles kept their composure, and sophomore guard Roman Behrens and his teammates came up with big plays at critical times as they beat Norfolk 69-66 Saturday in what Panthers coach Ben Ries described as a “district-like atmosphere.”
Playing in Norfolk was a new experience for the Eagles.
“It’s a tough place to play,” Holling said. “The environment. The people come out to support their team. And on top of that, they’re well-coached and they’re good basketball players.”
Behrens, son of former Central coach Eric Behrens, finished with 28 points.
“We’re not used to playing in this loud of an environment,” he said. “We had to stay composed. At the beginning of the season, we kind of struggled closing out games. But since about the halfway point, we’ve been closing everything out and getting some wins.”
In a game that featured eight ties, both teams had trouble putting together enough of a run to pull away.
Early in the third period — with 6-foot-9 Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler forced to the bench with his third foul — the Eagles managed to put together a 9-1 string to overcome a 36-31 deficit. But Norfolk responded with a 9-2 run of its own to take a 48-43 lead into the final period. The run including seven straight points by Logan Strom, who finished with 30 points and 10 rebounds.
Central’s ability to respond was spearheaded by Behrens, who scored 13 in the fourth quarter. The Eagles tied the score at 53 on a Behrens 3 and took the lead for good on Brandon Reed’s long 3 from the point with 3:36 remaining.
“The fans got their money’s worth; there were a lot of big-time shots from both teams,” Holling said. “They’d hit a 3, then we’d come down and hit a 3. We answered the bell every single time. Toward the end of the game, they were doing the same thing.”
Down the stretch, 10-of-10 free-throw shooting by the Eagles overcame three 3s by Norfolk’s Brandon Villalpando, the last a bank shot from out front with 13 seconds left that cut Norfolk’s deficit to 67-66. Keondre Spivey converted the final two free throws to wrap up the 69-67 win.
Neither team excelled from the 3-point line in the first half — each making around 30 percent of its attempts — but the Eagles were 6 of 8 in the second half while Norfolk made 5 of 16.
Villalpando joined Strom in double figures for the Panthers, scoring 18 points.
For Central, Spivey finished with 13 points and Chance Hall had 10. Poor Bear-Chandler totaled six points and five rebounds.
“Both teams played really well; I’m proud of how our team played,” Ries said. “It’s disappointing that we weren’t able to get the lead late, but we have to tip our hat to Central.”
Omaha Central (16-6)..................14 14 15 26 — 69
Norfolk (15-8).............................14 16 18 18 — 66
OC: Keondre Spivey 2-4 7-8 13, Jordan Flowers 1-3 2-2 4, Chance Hall 3-10 2-4 10, Brandon Reed 3-5 0-0 8, Roman Behrens 10-17 5-6 28, Isaiah Poor Bear-Chandler 3-3 0-0 6. Totals 22-42 16-20 69.
N: Christian Eisenhauer 0-1 0-0 0, Travis Larson 2-5 4-4 8, Brandon Villalpando 7-17 0-0 18, Lane McCallum 1-7 2-2 4, Luke Kluver 1-1 0-2 2, Matt Hagedorn 1-2 2-2 4, Logan Strom 11-17 4-6 30. Totals 23-50 12-16 66.