FORT MYERS, Fla. — Not getting exposed? Check.
Giving its home state welcome exposure to big-time basketball? Check.
That’s where Omaha Central puts the pencil down. Its hope is that it wouldn’t have to finish the quiz until Saturday, which would mean a top-six finish at the City of Palms Classic boys basketball tournament.
“We feel like we’re better than No. 5,” senior guard Tra-Deon Hollins said. “I feel that now, even the people in Omaha feel we could have won this tournament. We could have beat that team.”
The Eagles avoided getting exposed as a pretender by taking national No. 2 Long Beach (Calif.) Poly to the wire, rallying from nine points down in the middle of the final quarter to tie the game, in a 52-49 loss in Wednesday’s quarterfinals.
To make it to Saturday’s fifth-place game takes a win over another nationally ranked team, either Montverde (Fla.) Academy or Chicago’s Whitney Young. Those teams played in Thursday’s late game, which does mean a much shorter time for the losing team to regroup than what Central has gotten.
Only a blowout loss, it says here, could damage the exposure Central has gained for Nebraska high school basketball through Wednesday’s almost-successful comeback. Poly coach Sharrief Metoyer had sincere praise for the Eagles.
“Nebraska has some jewels,” he said. “They have some guys who can play and they’re catching up to the rest of the country.”
He liked how Central resembled his team for grit, for working hard on defense and making teams earn points. He liked how Louisville recruit Akoy Agau resembled his Jordan Bell, whose shot-blocking ability is eye-popping. Dana Altman has gotten a player for his Oregon Ducks program.
Central’s players, too, are feeling the love.
“We opened some eyes and got respect from people all over,” Hollins said. “We talked to some of the Poly guys after the game and they respected us. Before the game they were saying how they were going to mess up our record.”
The end of Central’s 41-game winning streak was big news locally. Only Chester (Pa.), with a streak now at 61 straight, came to town with a longer one. The Poly coach knew all about the Nebraskans, hardly surprising these days because his team, like Central, has been nationally ranked the past couple of seasons.
“Anytime you can win consecutive, or multiple state championships, you’re going to be out there. They represent Nebraska well,” Metoyer said. “I tip my hat to them. It’s incredible to win 41 games in a row. I’m just happy to win.”
This tournament truly is a hoops Mecca a week before Christmas. There’s plenty of college assistants roaming the hallway outside the Bishop Verot gym. Jolly old Saint Dick (Vitale) is due in today for what is becoming an annual visit for the ESPN analyst.
It’s an atmosphere that is unforgettable for the Eagles. While Agau is the attention-getter at home, Hollins said he and his teammates are getting kids’ requests for autographs and photos.
“This is something I’ve never been a part of,” Hollins said.
The work is unfinished, however, and this has been a business trip for the Eagles.
“No sightseeing. We’re here for basketball,” Central coach Eric Behrens said. “We’re trying to stay focused on why we came, it’s to come down here and try to win basketball games. When we got invited to something like this we felt that if we want to prove ourselves on a national level, we had to get outside of Nebraska and see what we can do against some other big-time programs.
“What better opportunities are there? I wouldn’t do it any other way.”
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