FIRTH, Neb. — A district championship is the only sure ticket to state, and Austan Rath and his Sutton teammates painfully know it.
Rath, who scored 26 points Friday night in the top-ranked Mustangs' 46-39 win over No. 2 Freeman in the C2-2 subdistrict final, said it still hurts that they went 23-3 last season and didn't get to Lincoln.
“Coach (Steve Spongberg) never has gotten a wild card in his life,'' Rath said. “We need to win districts.”
Sutton (24-1), by paying back Freeman for a 48-47 loss in the Falcons' holiday tournament, advanced to Monday's C2-1 district final against No. 4 Johnson County (22-3).
Freeman (23-3) led the Class C-2 wild-card standings entering Friday's games. Sutton was third.
“We were in control of our destiny, and now it's out of our hands,'' said Freeman coach Jim McLaughlin, who played for Spongberg at Sutton.
A rare subdistrict finals doubleheader, caused by snowouts, started at Norris Middle School with Sterling defeating Class D-2 No. 1 Falls City Sacred Heart 42-41 in the D2-1 final. The two games drew an estimated 1,200.
Sutton's Rath was 9 of 21 from the field with three 3-pointers. In the December loss to Freeman, he scored 30.
“He's unbelievable,'' McLaughlin said. “He's given us our fair share of problems.”
The Falcons led only twice, at 5-4 and then 23-22 in the third quarter on back-to-back 3s by Derek Veerhusen. He shared team honors with Isaac Frerichs by scoring 14 points.
Rath made a 3 on Sutton's next possession to start a 10-2 run for a seven-point lead that matched its largest cushion of the second half.
“I love the big-game atmosphere,” Rath said. “But I about cost us with a couple of turnovers on bad passes late in the game.”
Freeman closed to 40-39 as Frerichs scored on a jumper and made two free throws, but went scoreless in the final 1:37. The Falcons' Corey Haynes missed a 3-pointer for the lead with 42 seconds left, and then Sutton made five of its final six free throws to ice the win.
Freeman (23-3) ................. 5 8 14 12—39
Sutton (24-1) ................. 11 9 12 14—46
F: Derek Veerhusen 14, Isaac Frerichs 14, Cole Schuster 8, Corey Haynes 3.
S: Austan Rath 26, Cole Wiseman 6, Reed Stone 6, Noah Johnson 5.
D2-1 subdistrict final
Sterling 42, Falls City Sacred Heart 41
Ceaton Malone, a 6-foot-5 senior, scored with 2.9 seconds left to keep Sterling's season alive and force Sacred Heart into the race for one of the two wild-card berths to the Class D-2 state tournament.
The Irish entered Friday atop the D-2 point standings.
“My assistant (Andy Saathoff) drew that play up,'' first-year Sterling coach Matt Markowski said. “We figured Sacred Heart would converge on Kody Benson or that they'd think we'd go for a 3 from the corner, so we chose to throw it up to Ceaton.”
Sacred Heart fell behind 10-0 in going without a basket in the first quarter, and still trailed 20-12 at halftime and 33-29 after three quarters.
Chaz Dunn was catching fire, though, for the Irish (22-4), making a pair of 3s in the third period. He then made treys on three consecutive possessions as Sacred Heart went from trailing 37-30 to taking its first lead of the game at 39-37 with 2:56 left to play.
“He lit us up the last time we played, in the conference finals,'' said Markowski, whose team lost twice to Sacred Heart during the regular season.
Sacred Heart didn't score after taking its largest lead at 41-37 on two free throws by Dunn, who led all scorers with 20 points.
Benson, who led the No. 9 Jets (18-7) with 13 points and seven rebounds, scored on a three-point play with 1:18 left.
The Irish missed a free throw with 46 seconds left and Sterling held for the last shot.
Sacred Heart's last possession, after Malone's basket, ended with Lane Barnhill dribbling inside the 3-point arc and barely getting the ball up with Benson blocking his path.
“We had the lead and the ball,'' Sacred Heart coach Doug Goltz said. “We made too many mistakes on offense and defense down the stretch.”
Sterling (18-7) ................. 10 10 13 9—42
Falls City Sacred Heart (22-4) ................. 2 10 17 12—41
S: Chris Wenzl 2, Trey Trauernicht 3, Ryan Zuhlke 4, Kody Benson 13, Michael Lucas 8, Ceaton Malone 7, Trevor Huls 3, Jesse Phillips 2.
FCSH: Chaz Dunn 20, Clay Finck 5, Matt Goltz 6, Lane Barnhill 8, Brady Cromer 2.
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