GRAND ISLAND – The trends coming into Friday's game held true on Grand Island’s home court Friday night.
A strong fourth-quarter finish and stingy defense from the opening tip pushed the Class A No. 9 Islanders to a 51-40 win over Lincoln Pius X, marking Grand Island's seventh straight win and its 10th in 13 starts since the HAC tournament in late December. It’s a stretch that also includes victories over A No. 7 Creighton Prep and No. 10 Lincoln North Star.
With the win, the Islanders secured the Heartland Athletic Conference regular-season title.
“This is a huge win for us going into districts,” said Grand Island coach Jeremiah Slough, whose team finishes the regular season at Elkhorn South Saturday.
“We had to fight and battle tonight,” the coach added. “Pius X plays great defense and they made it difficult to score. But our guys found a way to get it done in the fourth quarter.”
The Islanders closed the game with a 15-3 run in the final 4:47 as they entered the fourth quarter trailing 30-29. Pius X’s last lead came at 37-36 after a basket inside by Jake Greisen with 5:38 left in the game.
Grand Island scored the next eight to take control. A pair of free throws by 6-foot-6 senior Them Koang put the Islanders in front to stay. Isaac Traudt, a 6-8 sophomore, hit both ends of a 1-and-1 before Jay Gustafson got loose for a layup off an inbounds pass along the baseline from Caleb Francl.
Francl, a Super-State football player, dove to the floor for a steal on the next possession, and his hustle play eventually led to a fast break dunk by Koang to make it 44-37 with 3:03 left in the game.
Despite sitting out almost five minutes of the second half with four fouls, Koang paced Grand Island with 16 points, seven rebounds and four blocked shots.
After Pius X’s Kolbe Rada hit a three-pointer to cut the deficit to 44-40 with 2:15 remaining, GI registered the final seven points. Jayden Byabato, a 6-2 senior point guard, had six of his 12 points in the fourth quarter, including a steal and a layup as well as a pair of free throws in the final 1:11.
“We’ve started playing a lot harder defensively here at the end of the season, and I think it showed again in the fourth quarter,” Bayabato said. “If we can keep playing like this, there’s no reason why we can’t make a run in districts and get to the state tournament.”
Rada’s 13 points paced Pius X (15-7), which is 4-7 since an 11-0 start that vaulted the Thunderbolts to the HAC tournament title over the holidays and the No. 1 ranking.
“We’re just having trouble combining offense and defense,” Pius X coach Brian Spicka said after seeing his team shoot 25 percent from the field (13 of 52) against the Islanders after holding a 39-33 rebounding edge.
“In some of our other losses, I felt like our defense was what let us down, but tonight, I thought we did a great job guarding them,” Spicka added. “To hold Traudt scoreless through three quarters was outstanding. But we struggled shooting tonight. Grand Island’s defense was tough, but I also thought we had some good looks that we just didn’t put down.”
Traudt, who came in averaging 17 points per game, scored just four against the ‘Bolts, all in the fourth quarter.
Pius X girls 65, Grand Island 16
The second-ranked Thunderbolts (21-1) bounced back from their first loss earlier this week by putting 11 players in the scoring column led by 12 points each from Alexis Markowski and Adison Markowski. Ella McDonald’s eight points paced the Islanders (2-19).