It was clear at the beginning of the season that the Class B schedule was going to be brutal on every team, and once the state tournament rolled around, the bracket would be filled with battle-tested teams prepared for the three-day slog.
No team better personified the wide-open and relentless field of Class B than No. 7 Northwest (21-5), which knocked off the No. 3 and No. 2 teams on its way to Saturday’s championship game at Pinnacle Bank Arena with top-ranked Crete (21-6).
The teams met twice during the regular season, splitting the pair, so Saturday’s final ultimately came down to who executed down the stretch. The Vikings, with a season’s worth of experience behind them, hit on all the little things it takes to win a state title, winning 49-43.
They outrebounded the Cardinals 29-21, forced crucial turnovers that led to easy transition baskets, and ultimately finished 15-of-19 from the free-throw line to close out their victory.
“I think we knew after those first couple games (that we were capable of winning a state championship),” Northwest coach Russ Moerer said. “It was obvious early on this year in Class B that there were seven or eight teams that were going to be in the hunt, and we played a bunch of them early. We felt like we belonged. We knew we could be here if we worked at it and did the right things.”
A key to surviving the Class B gauntlet is to have a star, and both Crete and Northwest (out of Grand Island) certainly check that box. Crete junior Morgan Maly, who’s committed to Creighton, led all scorers with 24 points and nine rebounds, but it was Northwest’s Whitney Brown who stole the show, as she did all tournament.
Brown finished with 23 points, many of which came in transition after her five steals. She also had teammate Lauren Hauser pulling down rebounds and scoring 10 points in the victory while no other Viking had more than five points in the win.
Crete was in the game throughout, however, trailing by one, 29-28, late in the third before Northwest closed the final two minutes of the quarter on a 6-0 run that changed the game.
“I told my assistant that (those two minutes) were the key to the game,” Crete coach John Larsen said. “It was a one-point game and we just kind of fell asleep and allowed them to get some easy layups. I thought that was really key.”
Northwest held onto the lead through the fourth quarter behind success from the free-throw line, including sophomore Shanae Suttles, who went 6-for-6 down the stretch.
The title is Northwest’s third of the decade and first since 2014, when the school won back-to-back championships. It’s the Vikings fourth title overall.
“This is a credit to these young ladies,” Moerer said. “I just sit on the bench. Seriously, they do all the work."