Damien Austen’s three-point play with 3.7 seconds lifted Kearney to an improbable 44-43 come-from-behind victory at Grand Island Senior High on Friday night.
The Islanders led 43-38 with less than 20 seconds remaining, but couldn’t hold on as Austen hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 17 seconds left and later penetrated for the game-winning basket with less than four seconds to go. On the Bearcats’ final possession, the 5-foot-8 senior point-guard was able to drive the lane and loft a bank shot over Grand Island’s 6-7 Chuol Biel to tie the score at 43-43 and Biel was also whistled for a foul.
Following a timeout, Austen sank the free throw, giving Kearney the victory. Grand Island’s Pierce Almond was able to launch a desperation 3-point attempt from 40-feet at the buzzer, but the shot missed and the Bearcats celebrated a sweep of the regular-season series.
"We’re just disappointed that we knew what Kearney was going to do and we didn’t have anyone who could stop it," Grand Island coach Jeff Hofeldt said. "Austen’s shot had a high degree of difficulty, making it over Chuol. He created separation and he’s a great player.
"We knew that Damien would want to step up in that situation and he did."
Austen scored 10 of Kearney’s 12 points in the fourth quarter and had 15 of his game-high 17 points in the second half. Bearcats’ coach Scott Steinbrook said Austen’s performance was even more impressive considering that he had battled illness earlier in the week and was having trouble catching his wind, while scoring just two points on 1-of-7 shooting in the first half.
"Damien is one of the most competitive players I have ever coached," Steinbrook said. "With the game on the line like that, we’re not going to put the ball in anybody else’s hands. … He’s just a fearless competitor and that was just one of the examples that I have got to witness in the last four years."
Trailing 32-30 after three quarters, Grand Island (3-13) opened the fourth quarter with an 11-4 run to lead 41-36 on Jake Morrow’s driving basket with 1:52 to play. Later, Almond hit a pair of free throws to put the Islanders ahead 43-38 with 44.1 seconds left.
However, Grand Island missed the front end of two one-and-one free-throw opportunities in the final 31.9 seconds. That left the door open for Kearney (5-11).
The down-to-the-wire contest was vastly different than the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 18 in Kearney. In that game, the Bearcats got off to a fast start and rolled to a 69-34 victory over the Islanders.
"We absolutely expected this to be a much closer game," Steinbrook said. "We shot so well that night at our place in the first quarter. It got our home crowd going and it was almost over before it started, but we knew that was not going to be the case.
"Grand Island has had a season kind of like ours where they have had some near misses and we knew that they had been playing well, so we knew on their home court, it wasn’t going to be easy. It never is between Kearney and Grand Island. I think our game a couple of weeks ago was more of an anomaly than anything else."
It was the second consecutive heart-breaker for Grand Island, which suffered its eighth consecutive loss. The Islanders were coming off a 69-63 overtime setback at home against Class A No. 3-rated (Omaha World-Herald) Omaha Benson on Jan. 25.
"We have played two good games with Omaha Benson and now with Kearney," Hofeldt said. "We have shifted our focus to not just winning or losing, but playing to the best of our ability and it seems to be working — although we didn’t play our best tonight."
Tanner Shuck and Ben Witkowski scored 10 points apiece to lead Grand Island and Biel finished with a game-high 12 rebounds. Almond, who entered the game as the Islanders’ leading scorer and was coming off a 33-point outing against Benson, was limited to nine points on 3-of-11 shooting from the floor.
It was the first game back in a month for Witkowski, who was 2-of-5 from 3-point range. The 6-2 senior suffered a broken collarbone while snowboarding over the holiday break.
"Ben’s a nice player and he’s had a situation where he’s had to watch from the bench for a month," Hofeldt said. "He’s seeing that he’s only got a small number games left in his high school career and realizing that he’s got to play hard and play hard now. He really did a good job of playing with that sense of urgency and intensity tonight."
KEARNEY (5-11): Austen 6-17 4-4 17, Pocock 1-5 0-0 3, Erickson 0-3 0-0 0, Schriner 2-9 1-2 6, Arp 5-10 2-2 12, Mishou 2-4 0-0 4, Johnson 0-2 0-0 0, Burchell 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 17-52 7-8 44.
GRAND ISLAND (3-13): Almond 3-11 2-4 9, Shuck 4-5 0-1 10, J.Morrow 1-3 5-6 7, Wojtalewicz 0-2 3-4 3, Biel 1-3 0-1 2, Witkowski 3-11 2-2 10, Chol 0-0 0-0 0, Uhing 1-2 0-0 2. Totals 13-37 12-18 43.
Kearney .............................. 7 12 13 12—44
Grand Island ....................... 12 12 6 13—43
3-point goals—Kearney 3-16 (Austen 1-6, Pocock 1-4, Schriner 1-5, Johnson 0-1), Grand Island 5-13 (Almond 1-5, Shuck 2-2, Wojtalewicz 0-1, Witkowski 2-5). Fouled out—None. Rebounds—Kearney 33 (Arp 8), Grand Island 27 (Biel 12). Assists—Kearney 11 (Austen 3, Schriner 3), Grand Island 8 (Shuck 2, Witkowski 2). Turnovers—Kearney 15, Grand Island 15. Total fouls—Kearney 18, Grand Island 12. Technicals—None. A—NA.
Defense kept Grand Island Senior High competitive, but in the end, the Islanders couldn’t escape their own offensive struggles in Friday night’s home loss to Kearney.
Despite committing 15 first-quarter turnovers, Grand Island (6-10) trailed just 9-8 at the opening break and owned leads of 12-9 and 14-12 in the second quarter before the Bearcats (11-5) took control. Kearney outscored the Islanders 27-16 in the second half to pull away.
The consolation prize for Grand Island was that it sliced the size of its loss to Kearney in half. The Islanders lost to the Bearcats 73-41 back on Jan. 18 in their previous meeting at Kearney.
"I thought we grew up quite a bit from that first experience," Grand Island coach Alex Michel said. "It was a little bit of a shock going into to Kearney. As the game wore on, we handled their pressure a lot better in this game and I was proud of the girls for that.
"Really, it came down Kelsey Stithem making plays. She just kind of took over and she’s really a great player."
Stithem, who entered the game as Kearney’s leading scorer, was limited to two points in the game’s first 20 minutes before scoring 11 points in the final 12 minutes. Skyler Snider led the Bearcats with a game-high 15 points and Payton Cudaback added eight points and 12 rebounds.
Kearney coach Jason Boyd said he knew his team’s second meeting with Grand Island would be different than he first.
"We played really well the first time we met and I don’t think Grand Island played as well as they could, so it’s hard to get your kids mentally prepared for a game like this," Boyd said. "We knew it would be a tougher game, especially here. We haven’t had a lot of success here in the past, so we were trying to get the idea instilled into our kids that it was going to be a tough game and they needed to be ready to go.
"Grand Island played hard. They rebound well and their transition offense is about as good as anyone we play."
Sydney Armstrong scored 13 points to lead Grand Island, finishing 7-of-7 from the free-throw line. The Islanders had 26 turnovers and shot just 26.2 percent (11 of 42) from the floor, but stayed competitive by forcing 23 Kearney turnovers and grabbing 12 offensive rebounds.
"Our defense was keeping us in the game," Michel said. "We just have to take care of the ball better and that comes with playing more basketball and improving and working on the fundamentals.
"The difference tonight was that we were aggressive and that’s all I asked. If we were going to make a mistake, we wanted it to be an aggressive mistake and I thought that was the case tonight."
KEARNEY (11-5): Sickler 0-2 1-2 1, Stithem 5-10 2-4 13, Snider 6-8 3-5 15, Cudaback 3-4 2-2 8, Miller 2-2 0-0 4, Ray 0-5 0-0 0, Speicher 1-7 1-2 4, Graham 1-2 0-0 2, Obermiller 1-2 2-3 4. Totals 19-42 11-18 51.
GRAND ISLAND (6-10): Splattstoesser 0-3 0-0 0, Harvey 1-1 0-0 2, Lib.Norvell 2-4 2-5 6, Armstrong 3-14 7-7 13, Uhing 0-3 2-4 2, A.Richardson 1-5 0-0 2, Jacobson 3-5 1-2 8, Lin.Norvell 1-7 0-0 2, K.Richardson 0-0 0-0 0, Wooden 0-0 0-0 0, Wells 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 11-42 12-18 35.
Kearney ............................... 9 15 16 11—51
Grand Island ........................ 8 11 8 8—35
3-point goals—Kearney 2-14 (Sickler 0-1, Stithem 1-6, Cudaback 0-1, Speicher 1-5, Graham 0-1), Grand Island 1-8 (Splattstoesser 0-2, Lib.Norvell 0-1, Uhing 0-1, Jacobson 1-2, Lin.Norvell 0-1). Fouled out—Harvey. Rebounds—Kearney 29 (Cudaback 12), Grand Island 30 (Armstrong 8). Assists—Kearney 11 (Sickler 4), Grand Island 6 (Uhing 3). Turnovers—Kearney 23, Grand Island 26. Total fouls—Kearney 16, Grand Island 18. Technicals—None. A—NA.