LINCOLN — The day of redemption came Saturday for Lincoln Southeast, and the Knights — led by super sophomore Jessica Shepard — responded like champions.
Shepard poured in 26 points and yanked down 19 rebounds to lead Southeast to a 65-57 win over Bellevue West in the Class A final of the girls state basketball tournament. The Knights were the state runners-up last year, losing to Omaha Central by a point on a free throw in the final seconds.
“That loss drove us a lot,” Shepard said. “I didn’t want to lose again because that feeling was awful.”
Shepard’s three-day tourney performance also set a Class A record. She finished with 81 points — 26, 27 and 28 — breaking the mark of 80 set by Omaha Central’s Maurtice Ivy in 1984.
“What can you say about her?” Southeast coach Kara Graham said. “She’s an amazing offensive talent because she gets triple-teamed and still manages to score.”
Shepard scored eight points in the first quarter as the Knights grabbed an 18-9 lead. Southeast lacks the depth of other teams and used that quick-strike strategy to good advantage earlier in the tourney, eliminating Bellevue East and Millard West.
The Thunderbirds, whose only lead came at 2-0, fell behind by 12 in the second quarter before coming to life. A nine-point run closed the gap to 25-22, but a free throw by Alexa Kastanek and a 3-pointer by Reanne May put Southeast ahead by seven at halftime, 29-22.
The Knights widened their lead to 13 in the third quarter as Bellevue West continued to struggle offensively. The Thunderbirds’ performance from behind the arc — 3 for 13 overall— didn’t help.
With Bellevue West trailing 44-33 entering the fourth quarter, Thunderbirds coach Marc Kruger tried to inspire his team.
“I told them that if we went down, we’d go down with our guns blazing,” he said. “We needed to give it everything we had.”
With the help of freshman Chloe Akin-Otiko, who scored all 12 of her points in the second half, Bellevue West chopped into the Knights’ lead. Shortly after Shepard picked up her fourth foul, the Thunderbirds closed within 56-51 with 1:43 left on two free throws by junior center Kate Liveringhouse.
Southeast refused to cave, knocking down nine free throws the rest of the way to hold its lead. Two turnovers in the final minute also hurt the Thunderbirds, and they could not get closer than six points the rest of the way.
All that was left for Graham was to send in reserves in the final seconds for major contributors Kastanek and Shepard. Each received a huge ovation from the Knights fans and a hug from Graham.
“I got kind of emotional there,” the coach said. “But I love all of these kids.”
Kastanek, a 5-foot-9 senior, promised after last year’s state title loss that the Knights would win the championship a year later. The Iowa recruit scored 14 points, had seven rebounds and made three steals Saturday to help make that happen.
“I was smiling for the last minute of the game because I knew we had it,” she said. “This just feels awesome.”
May added 13 points while Maddy Everett added eight for Southeast, which won its 10th title overall and first since 2008.
Liveringhouse led the Thunderbirds with 16 points and seven rebounds.
“After we lost to Millard North (64-49 on Jan. 19), we got together and said we’re not losing again,” Shepard said. “And we didn’t.”
Bellevue West (27-2) ................. 9 13 11 24—57
Lincoln Southeast (24-3) ................. 18 11 15 21—65
BW: Elisha Cobbs 1-6 4-6 6, Madi Braun 2-6 0-0 6, Annie Szczepaniak 4-8 1-3 9, Taylor Ditoro 2-5 1-4 6, Kate Liveringhouse 4-15 8-8 16, Julie Targy 0-3 2-2 2, Chloe Akin-Otiko 4-8 4-6 12.
LSE: Maddy Everett 2-5 4-6 8, Alexa Haas 0-4 2-2 2, Alexa Kastanek 2-8 9-12 14, Reanne May 4-8 2-2 13, Jessica Shepard 9-20 8-12 26, Courtney Allen 1-2 0-0 2.
3-point goals: BW 3-13 (Cobbs 0-1, Braun 2-6, Ditoro 1-3, Liveringhouse 0-2, Akin-Otiko 0-1); LSE 4-8 (Haas 0-2, Kastanek 0-1, May 3-5). Rebounds: BW 31 (Liveringhouse 7); LSE 40 (Shepard 19). Total fouls: BW 23; LSE 19. Fouled out: Ditoro, Akin-Otiko. Turnovers: BW 16; LSE 18. Field-goal percentage: BW .333; LSE .375. Free-throw percentage: BW .690; LSE .735. Officials: Andrew Fulton, Tim O'Dey, Grant Carter.
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