LINCOLN — Many Hastings High players and fans will be happy to see Andy Woolridge on their side next season.
Woolridge, who will take his considerable talents to the University of Nebraska next fall, scored a Class A-tournament record 50 points as Omaha Benson defeated Hastings 95-76 in the championship game Saturday before 10,270 fans at the Bob Devaney Sports Center in Lincoln.
The 6-foot-2 guard, who also broke records for field goals in a tournament game (17) and points in a Class A career (1,911), helped the 22-3 Bunnies to their first state championship since winning the Class E title in 1920. Hastings, which ended 19-4, reached the final game for the first time since its only No. 1 finish in 1954.
“The kids are disappointed we didn’t win the ball game, but there’s only one state champion,” Hastings High Coach Joe Sajevic said.
And there’s only one Woolridge.
With Nebraska Coach Danny Nee and several of his players looking on, the Benson senior hit 17 of 35 attempts from the field, 12 of 15 free throws, collected 10 rebounds and two miraculous assists in his 31 minutes in the spotlight Sunday. Nearly all of his numbers came against Hastings’ 6-10 Doug Brandt, a Baylor recruit who drew the man-to-man assignment.
“We suspected that Hastings would play man and that Doug Brandt would be the one (guarding Woolridge),” Benson Coach Terry Shelsta said. “Andy was just on a career night. There wasn’t anyone who was going to stop him.”
That wasn’t apparent until midway through the second period, when Hastings was clinging to a 27-26 lead. Woolridge, who had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting, hit four straight buckets in a 17-2 run that put the Bunnies up 43-29 at the half.
Hastings was still within 14 midway through the second period when a 9-0 Benson run raised the score to 62-39 and all but put the game out of reach.
“We knew a 14-point lead in this day and age isn’t all that much,” Shelsta said. “Whenever you face good opposition, they’re going to make runs at you. At halftime, we said let’s make sure we make the first run of the second half and get the lead to 20.”
Woolridge did much of the damage on offense, but a change in the Benson press may have had the biggest impact. The Bunnies switched from their run-and-jump pressure to a fullcourt 1-2-1-1 defense that ultimately forced 18 Hastings turnovers and changed the tempo of the game.
“I thought we had a good shot of winning the ball game and then the bottom kind of fell out,” Sajevic said. “The press shook us and it shouldn’t of. Plus, we didn’t do a very good job on the offensive or defensive boards during those stretches. That hurt us.”
Hastings, which advanced to the title game with narrow wins over Papillion-LaVista and North Platte, hurt Benson in the first period with a solid offensive effort and strong play on the defensive end of the court.
Hastings, which outrebounded the Bunnies 12-7, moved ahead 11-9 on Bo Buettenback’s rebound and basket with 2:45 left in the period. Buettenback, a sophomore who played for the Valentino’s/Nebraska Juniors all-star team that traveled to Phoenix las summer, scored 15 Saturday and finished the tournament with 45 points, third-best in the Class A field.
Benson tied the game on two Woolridge free throws, but Hastings answered with a three-point play from Simmons, two free throws from the junior center and a three pointer from Randy Bates to move ahead 19-13.
But Brandt collected his first foul with 43.5 seconds remaining in the quarter and his second when Benson guard Kenya Crandell drove for a bucket with 22.7 seconds left. He stayed on Woolridge, who responded with 12 points in the second period.
“We knew he was going to get some, but we were pretty confident that one player couldn’t beat us,” Sajevic said. “I guess Andy showed he could do that.”
On the offensive end, Hastings managed just three field goals in the second period. Benson, which went 13 of 21 in the stanza, added a 9 of 11 performance in the third quarter.
Hastings never managed a larger run than five points.
“They put on their runs but we didn’t counter any of them,” Sajveic said. “they had the on switch on longer than we wanted them to.” With the game decided, Woolridge, who matched his 26-point average in the Bunnies’ two previous tournament games, notched a three-pointer, breakaway dunk and steal and layup to open the final eight minutes. He surpassed several records before leaving the game to a standing ovation with 46 seconds left.
Brandt finished his Hastings career with 28 points, 11 of which came in the final period. Simmons added 11 and reserve Josh Patterson notched 10.
All 12 players saw action for both teams.
Hastings was the third non-Lincoln or Omaha team to reach the Class A championship in six years. No out state team appeared in the championship game for 15 years prior to Norfolk’s landmark victory in 1987.
“These kids have a lot to be proud of,” Sajevic said. “They’ve don things that a lot of teams have never done or come close to doing. I think they realize that.”
Benson’s win ended decades of frustration in the state tournament title games. The Bunnies, who beat Kenesaw for their only previous championship, had lost seven straight times in the final, including an embarrassing 60-38 setback against Millard South in 1988.
Last year, the Bunnies entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed but lost their opening-round game to Bellevue West.
“I think that had a lot to do with how we came out this year,” Shelsta said. “We were focused and determined not to let that happen again.”