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Omaha Central has been waiting for this week like a child waits for Christmas morning.
It's been six months of knowing the Eagles would be the first boys basketball team from Nebraska to play in a national high school invitational.
They will take the wrapping off their gift Tuesday in Fort Myers, Fla., when they begin play in the City of Palms Classic.
So far this season, it's been hard not to look ahead.
“We've been trying not to overlook teams, because anybody can beat you, but you can't help but think about teams that we could be playing there,” senior Tra-Deon Hollins said. “When you think of Central playing out of town in Florida, you have to be excited.”
Said fellow senior KJ Scott: “It's mind-blowing, actually.”
The combination of winning the past three Class A state titles (six of the past seven) and returning four starters from last year's team — the first in Class A since 1988-89 to go undefeated — made Central attractive to the tournament organizers for their 40th annual tournament. They're proud that last year, all but five of the 16 teams went on to win state titles.
“We believe this was the first 16-team tournament bracket in the history of high school basketball to produce 11 eventual state champs,” tournament director Donnie Wilkie said.
Central's opponent in Tuesday's 3:45 p.m. CST game at Bishop Verot High School in Fort Myers is McDonough (Ga.) Eagle's Landing (6-2), a team from an Atlanta suburb. Both losses for those Eagles came in an Atlanta-Memphis challenge series earlier this month. They were 28-4 last season with a loss in the state semifinals.
Eagle's Landing isn't found in the latest ESPN national rankings, nor is Central (4-0). But half of this year's field is ranked, including both of Central's possible opponents on Wednesday.
“It's a whole different ballgame,” said Akoy Agau, the Eagles' 6-foot-9 senior who's signed with Louisville. “These all are kids who are athletes. All can jump and shoot, making plays. They're all just good players who can do things all around.”
Eagle's Landing has a tall frontcourt and has players who have signed with South Carolina and Middle Tennessee.
Central is far from short on college material. Sixth man Nick Billingsley, a 6-5 senior who transferred from Omaha North after last season, signed with UNO. Perimeter players Scott and Hollins are considered possible Division I recruits, as is 6-foot-6 junior Tre'Shawn Thurman.
Also starting for the Eagles is senior Deandre Hollins-Johnson, who's in his third year at point guard.
Beyond those six, the Eagles' eight-man bench barely has seen much varsity action. So there's a gulf in experience as the team heads to the Florida Gulf Coast tournament.
“It's going to be a very different experience for some of them,” Agau said. “It's about just staying calm and play hard the way we do.
“All these teams will be big and strong and athletic, so it takes being smart. Sometimes the game of basketball is about being smart.”
The last game Central played ranks low in that measure. Playing at home on Saturday, Central couldn't hold onto an early 15-point lead on Omaha Burke — the Bulldogs had the ball and trailed by two in the final minute — before eking out a 73-67 win.
“I felt we checked out of the game at times. As it got tougher, we looked tight,” Central coach Eric Behrens said. “It was not a great effort on our part.”
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Agau said the team was guilty of not respecting its opponent. Speaking before Sunday's scheduled two-hour practice — the last before the team left Monday for Florida — he said he expected the workout would address that while being heavy with defensive drills.
Behrens said Central has much to gain from a week of playing higher-level competition.
“We're going to be the underdogs, and that rarely happens anymore,” he said.
The former World-Herald high school coach of the year said he wants the Eagles to follow the approach they would have for a state-tournament week.
“You want to win Tuesday. It's like state where you have to win on Thursday to worry about anything else,” Behrens said. “If we go and get a win, then you see what happens.”
A sidelight to Tuesday's game is that Central, with 40 wins in a row, needs to beat Eagle's Landing to tie the Class A record for the longest winning streak. Grand Island won 41 straight ending the 1948-49 season.
“Down in Florida, we're not going to go out and win big,” Agau said. “We're going to be in situations where we have to make plays at the end.”
Scott said he can't imagine a senior season that could offer any better opportunities. They also have a game in February in Grand Island against a longtime national power, Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.
“We want to show our appreciation,” he said, “and go down to Florida and play our best.”
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