Lincoln Pius X made history Monday on its home floor by winning the Heartland Athletic Conference boys basketball tournament championship in the Thunderbolts’ first year in the conference.
A memorable performance from 6-foot-2 senior Charlie Easley helped put the plaque in the trophy case for the Class B No. 1 Thunderbolts, who outlasted Class A No. 3 Kearney 73-69.
Easley, who has a scholarship offer from The Citadel and a walk-on opportunity at Nebraska, exploded for 26 of his game-high 33 points in the second half with a flawless shooting performance. He was 8-of-8 from the field, 2-of-2 from beyond the three-point arc and made all eight free throws he attempted in the fourth quarter to thwart Kearney's furious fourth-quarter rally.
When asked about the half Easley had, Pius X coach Brian Spicka’s response was “which one?"
“He has really good halves all the time,” Spicka said after his team improved to 10-1 with its ninth straight victory. “Charlie is tremendous. He can create shots, he can create shots for his teammates, he plays defense, he plays offense and he’s a leader out there. Any superlative you can come up with probably isn’t enough.
“That’s why I’m glad he’s on my team,” Spicka added. “He makes me look really, really smart.”
Easley finished 11-of-16 from the field and 3-of-4 from beyond the arc. He scored from all three levels — behind the three-point line, pulling up for mid-range jumpers and on drives all the way to the basket.
His second-half statistics, however, caught him a little off-guard.
“I’m surprised it happened,” Easley said. “I just came out and things were falling, that’s all.
“We’re a bunch of competitive guys and to get that plaque in the first year being in the HAC means a lot to us.”
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Kearney (9-3) never overcame an 8-0 deficit to start the game, despite 29 points and 14 rebounds from 6-8 senior Shiloh Robinson. Robinson was 13-of-16 from the field and scored 15 points in the final quarter, getting Kearney as close as 71-69 with just less than 20 seconds left on a fast-break dunk.
“How do you stop a guy like Shiloh? You don’t and we didn’t,” Spicka said. “You don’t stop him, you just try to outlast him.”
Pius X’s quick start came on the hot shooting of Kolbe Rada, who had four three-pointers in the first half and scored all 14 of his points before intermission as the Bolts took a 33-26 lead. Easley’s 14 points in the third quarter helped Pius X extend that margin to as many as 14 points midway through the period.
Pius X also got 14 points from Mitchell Sebek.
“We have a lot of guys who can score,” Spicka said. “We’ve had six guys score double figures at some point this season, so we have a lot of options. If they want to pressure Charlie, we have guys who can attack, shoot and score.”
Pius X now has wins against four rated Class A teams in its current win streak — Kearney, No. 4 Lincoln East, No. 8 Millard North and No. 9 Lincoln High. Its lone loss, to Lincoln East in the second game of the season, provided a lesson for the Bolts.
“We learned we had to get a lot tougher,” Spicka said. “We’re a little bit smaller than the team we’re playing, so we had to drill into them to be a little more physical. We’ve got some guys who like to do that. There’s been a few bloody lips in practice, and that’s a good thing. It toughens them physically and mentally.”
The Bearcats will get their rematch with Pius X next Jan. 17 at Kearney, a game both sides were already beginning to think about Monday. With both teams shooting better than 50 percent and a dramatic finish in the first game, it builds the anticipation for the second meeting.
“Oh, gosh, we’ll have to do a lot of things if we want a chance to win out there,” Spicka said. “Kearney’s a great team, and it will be a battle again. I’ll have to have my blood pressure come down a little before then.”