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The Student News Site of Millard West High School

The Catalyst

The Student News Site of Millard West High School

The Catalyst

The Student News Site of Millard West High School

The Catalyst

Wildcats win it all

Millard West caps off an incredible season with their first State Championship in program history
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Jackie Johnson
After winning the State Championship, the Millard West varsity girls basketball hoists the trophy up. They would finish the season 27-1 and State Champions after defeating Bellevue West 58-55. “It means everything to win a State Championship my senior year,” senior Taylor Hansen said. “I had dreamed for years of being able to cut the nets down at PBA and to finally be able to get it done with my teammates was something I’ll never forget.”

After battling through the regular season, the 24-1 Millard West girls basketball team had quite the accolades including a Metro Conference tournament championship, a district A-1 championship and a perfect in state regular season record, but one more trophy was still on the line; the Class A State Championship.

The team came into the tournament as the #1 overall seed led by twin junior guards Neleigh and Norah Gessert, along with a strong presence in the paint by sophomore forward Kylee Paben. 

To start out the tournament, the Wildcats would match up against the Omaha Central Eagles. These two teams had met early in the Metro Conference championship which the Wildcats won 60-45, off a 19 point, 14 rebound double double performance from Paben, but the Eagles would have a key component of their team in junior forward Noelle Tcheuhchoua back for this game who had missed the previous match up. Despite having played each other early in the year, both these teams had changed drastically in the last two months.

Central would take the lead early in the game jumping out to a 6-1 lead, but the Wildcats would quickly respond with success from beyond the three point line by Norah Gessert and Paben to take a 11-10 point lead at the end of the first quarter.

This time the Wildcats would find success early in the quarter and climb their lead up to 19-10. Similar to the first quarter the Eagles would not go away and shrink the lead down to 21-18. The Wildcats would string together some more shots and take a 25-18 lead into the locker room.

After halftime both teams were looking to take control of the game but instead defense would prevail on both ends. The Wildcats would take their biggest lead of the game so far with 11 points, but senior Inia Jones and the Eagles would score six quick points to bring the game back within five, with one quarter to go.

Central would continue to claw and cut the lead down to three points, after a defensive stand by the Eagles there three point shot to tie the game would bounce out. The Eagles would get another defensive stop and have another attempt at the game tying three that would miss again. The Wildcats would then lock and score the last 11 points of the game including seven from the free throw line and knock out the Eagles by a score of 49-35.

“I think the reason we are able to win all of our close games is because as a group we are all so close and spend so much time together,” Paben said. “We all have great relationships and I think it really shows out on the court when we get into those situations. With us being so close we play great team basketball which helps us have confidence in each other to make big shots down the line.”

The Wildcats would survive and advance in the first round with a little bit of production from every single starter and stifling defense in the fourth quarter holding the Eagles to just 17 second half points, with only three points coming in the fourth quarter.

“We knew that our first-round game against. Central was going to be tough,” Hansen said. “They are not a great matchup for us so we knew that we had to match their physicality and try our best to play our game. We kept confident during the Central game and were able to knock down almost 30 free throws to help us get the win.”

Lincoln North Star would take down Millard North 46-31 to set up a Millard West vs Lincoln North Star matchup in the semifinals. This would be a tough matchup for both teams had they had not played each other in the season so both teams would have to adapt on the fly to the other.

North Star would strike right away with two quick shots for an early 5-0 lead. The Wildcats would then attack in full force scoring 26 straight, 20 of which coming in the first quarter, with senior guard Taylor Hansen and Paben leading the way with six points each. The defense would also shut down North Star for the rest of the quarter and the Cats would be up 20-5 after the first quarter.

It would be more of the same to start the second quarter and the Millard West’s run wouldn’t end tell the Wildcats were up 26-5. North Star would score their first basketball since the first minute of the game with about six minutes left in the second quarter. However, every single basket North Star was able to  score, Millard West would answer almost immediately and at halftime the Navigators would themselves down big, 39-14.

“We knew that North Star was a team of shooters,” Hansen said. “During the North Star game on defense, we contested the 3-point line and our height gave them trouble when trying to get into the paint. We were on fire during the North Star game and were able to utilize everyone hitting shots to pull away and get the big lead.”

Up by 25 at halftime, the Wildcats would look deeper into the bench but also continue to grow their lead. Well the offense production slowed down slightly for the Wildcats the defense stayed strong and continued to stifle most offensive attempts by the Gators. The Gessert twins would combine for eight points in the third quarter, but more impressively the Wildcat defense would limit the Gators to just 5 points, and hold a commanding 49-19 lead with only quarter left in the game.

With only eight minutes left, North Star didn’t have enough time to come back and Millard West would do a great good of slowly down the game, also still growing their lead. The offense struggles continued for the Gators as they only scored five points in the final quarter. After a free throw by senior Amber Aiken at the end of the game.

“Props to our coaches because they came up with a great scout plan for us to shut them down,” Paben said. “We knew they loved to shoot that ball and the certain players that would try to score. So, really coming together to stop them from getting to the rim and getting shots up was the real reason.”

The Wildcats would win by a score of 59-24, due to a strong defensive effort by the entire team all game to hold North Star to single digit points each quarter and an 11 point 12 rebound double double by Paben the Wildcats had punched their ticket to the State Championship.

Three seed Bellevue West would take down #2 Lincoln Southwest 57-51 in the other semifinal to create a Millard West vs Bellevue West State Championship matchup. This would be another opponent the Wildcats had played before as they had defeated the Thunderbirds 74-62, due to a 13 point 10 rebound double double by Norah Gessert and a 11 point 13 rebound double double by Paben. Bellevue West was led by senior guard Naomi White who had scored 19 points in the previous matchup. Similar to the Central matchup even though these two had played each other earlier in the season they both had drastically improved and both teams were playing some of their best basketball at this point in the season. Bellevue West went into the game on a 14 game winning streak not having lost a game since their last matchup against Millard West. Millard West came into this game on a 14 game winning streak with their only loss being against nationally ranked Johnston who would go on to win an Iowa State Championship. Nevertheless, none of the regular season matters because at the end of the game whoever won would be crowned State Champions.

Bellevue West would win the tip off and senior Naomi White would get the scoring started with a two point field goal, but senior Taylor Hansen would immediately respond with a two point field goal of her own. After a Millard West free throw by Hansen, Bellevue West would score seven quick points to capture an early 9-3 lead. Paben would score five points for the Wildcats to get them back into the game, and after four more points by Neleigh Gessert the game would be deadlocked at 12 after one quarter.

To start the second quarter, Paben would continue her scoring effort with three quick points, before a nine point run by the Thunderbirds with the last six coming from senior center Danielle Coyer to put them up 21-15. Neleigh Gessert would pop a quick two pointer to cut the lead to four before the first timeout of the game by Bellevue West, midway through the second quarter. Bellevue West would come out strong out of the timeout with baskets by Coyer, White, and senior guard Mia McVay. Would force Millard West to call their first timeout of the game down 29-17 with around two minutes left till halftime. Neleigh Gessert would put the team on her back scoring not one, not two, but three three pointers in a row to get Millard West back within one basket. The teams would split baskets to end the quarter and at halftime Bellevue West was up 31-27.

“In the Bellevue West game when we fell behind by 12 points, I called timeout and just tried to calm them down,” head coach Marc Kruger said. “We didn’t change anything that we were doing on either end of the floor. This turned out to be the greatest timeout I’ve ever called because Neleigh came out and hit three, three point shots in about a minute and we went from being down 12 to down three. It was without a doubt the turning point in the game. We were still down four points at half but felt good about how we were playing. We talked about trusting each other, cleaning up some turnovers and just keep doing what we do, so I feel like the team was still very confident that they could finish it out.”

After halftime, offensive production would be slowed down a bit as both teams tied up defensively. They would continue to split baskets until a defensive stop by the Wildcats and a two point field goal by Taylor Hansen would take the game to its first time of the second half at 41 each. Hansen put in a free throw to end the third quarter and give the Wildcats a 42-41 lead with eight minutes left in the season.

“Throughout the whole season we worked so hard day in and day out in practice,” Paben said. “Also, doing other workouts after practice and things like team bonding events really helped come together as a team to get the job down.”

With the season on the line, Millard West would continue the offensive momentum with two free throws by Paben and a huge three pointer by Neleigh Gessert gave the Cats a six point and force another Bellevue West timeout with six minutes left. The wildcat offenses would find success in the fourth with Neleigh Gessert, Norah Gessert, and Paben hitting threes for the Cats. The Thunderbird offense would answer with a three from senior guard Kenzie Melcher, and a quick put back by senior guard Ahnica Russell-Brown.

With about two minutes left in the game, Millard West would call timeout up six gearing in for a fast, physical ending. Russell-Brown would knock down a quick three to cut the Wildcat lead in half, and then White would knock down both of her free throws to make it a one point Wildcat lead with under a minute to go. After an intentional foul against Bellevue West they would call their last timeout of the game. Norah Gessert would go to the free throw line but miss both of her shots, giving Bellevue West the ball back. After a foul by the Millard West defense, Norah Gessert would intercept the Thunderbird inbound attempt forcing them to intentionally foul her again. She would miss both of her free throws again giving Bellevue West another chance to take the lead. Another foul by the Wildcats forced the Thunderbirds to inbound again. This time Ott would get her hand on the inbound and after a fight for possession, the ball would trickly out of bounds. Both teams would wait for a critical call by the refs and that’s when the signal was made Wildcat ball. The Cats would successfully inbound to Neleigh Gessert who was immediately fouled with around 5 seconds left in the game. She would find success from the free throw line making both her shots and giving the cats a three point lead with one shot left for the Thunderbirds. With no timeouts left Bellevue West had to inbound and attack right away. They would success pass it in to White who would get up court to the top of the college arch three point line and put up a game tying three pointer attempt at the buzzer. The shot would glide through the air and come down straight on the rim where it would bounce out. The Wildcats would claim victory and win their first ever State Championship in program history.

“To win the whole thing we obviously were able to play great defense, and Neleigh had a special performance, but we got contributions from all the starters, Taylor Hansen had a huge basket and got fouled to end the third quarter that gave us the lead, Callie Ott got to the rim and scored a few times and also did a great job screening to free up others,” Kruger said. “Kylee Paben hit big shots and led the team in rebounds. Norah ran the offense, controlled the ball, hit a big three in the fourth quarter and stole the ball late to seal the victory. All that stuff is great and is what people will remember but it takes all that and more. This team had a bond that was so tight, that whenever adversity hit they didn’t fold, they rose to the occasion. That’s the number one reason we are State Champions, these kids believed and trusted in each other and just refused to let anyone else have that title. It feels amazing. Personally it was thrilling, emotional, exciting, and fulfilling! Myself and my coaches put in a ton of time and it was an unbelievable moment I will never forget. For the kids I’m glad I was able to be a small part of helping them achieve a dream come true, the smiles on their faces and the hugs putting the medals around their necks is something I will never forget. And for Millard West there was a lot of talk about how the school had never won a championship in girls basketball so to be a part of the team that ended that made things even that much more fulfilling. I was blown away by our crowd and support we say in our three days down there.”

After having coming so close in the past, the team would finally win it all. Neleigh Gessert would finish the tournament averaging 17.3 points per game, and scoring an incredible 29 points in the championship game. Well, Kylee Paben would average 12.3 points and 9.7 rebounds and a 13 point 11 rebounds double double performance in the championship. The Wildcats would successfully cap off a magical season with a 58-55 State Championship victory.

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About the Contributor
Nathan Delaney, Staff Reporter
Nathan is a senior at Millard West and this is his second year on the CATalyst staff. He is taking Advanced Journalism, Broadcast Journalism and Yearbook this year. This summer he went to multiple journalism camps and went on a family vacation to Alaska. He also worked with the President of the Nebraska Broadcasters Association, Jim Timm, on the High School Radio Project. He is looking forward to expanding to new parts of journalism and furthering his skills this year.

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