ALBION, Neb. — As the Hartington-Newcastle Wildcats prepared to face 2018 Class D1 runner-up Kenesaw for a berth in this year’s Nebraska State Boys’ Basketball Tournament, head coach Nick Haselhorst gave his backup big man, Matthew Meisenheimer, one simple instruction:
Meisenheimer, a 6-2 junior, did just that, scoring a game-high 14 points off the bench in the Wildcats’ 36-32 victory over the Blue Devils in the District D1-5 final on Monday at Boone Central High School in Albion, Nebraska.
Sam Harms and Kobe Heitman each had seven points for the Wildcats (16-9) in the low-scoring contest. Between the 6-7 Harms and Meisenheimer, the Wildcats scored the majority of their points in the paint.
“We thought we had a physical advantage. We thought we had an advantage down low with Meisenheimer,” Haselhorst said. “We wanted to keep our spacing, working inside-out.”
Ryan Denkert scored 11 points, hitting three three-pointers, for Kenesaw, which finished 18-4. Parker Bittfield added seven points.
Kenesaw led a slow-paced game 3-0 midway through the first quarter, but the Wildcats got a spark off the bench from Meisenheimer, who scored three baskets in the post to put Hartington-Newcastle on the board. Sam Harms added a late layup to give the ‘Cats an 8-3 lead after one quarter.
“Coach told me that I’m the strongest kid on the floor,” Meisenheimer said. “He told me to go in and wreak havoc, do what I could do for the team.”
The Blue Devils got their long-range shooting going to start the second quarter. Triples by Ryan Denkert and John Schuster gave Kenesaw a 9-8 edge. Hartington-Newcastle scored the final three points of the half from the line to take a 13-11 edge into the break.
After 16 minutes of waiting for open three-pointers, Kenesaw got more aggressive to start the third quarter, scoring on a mid-range jumper and a Bittfield post-up to claim a 18-15 edge. But the Wildcats answered with inside play of their own, as baskets from Meisenheimer and Harms helped the squad take a 21-20 lead into the fourth quarter.
“In the third quarter we turned the ball over four, five times,” said Kenesaw head coach Jack Einrem, a USD-Springfield grad. “We didn’t shoot well, but that might have been because of their defense. They’re a good ball team.”
A slow-paced fourth quarter picked up after a Ryan Denkert three-pointer two minutes in. The Wildcats answered, as they had all game, by going inside to Meisenheimer and Harms. The Blue Devils briefly regained the lead on a Bittfield three-point play, but Kobe Heitman’s three-pointer 13 seconds later gave the Wildcats the lead.
Kenesaw closed to within two, 34-32, with 32 seconds to play and had a chance to tie or take the lead after forcing a five-second call, but two Heitman free throws with 5.8 seconds left iced the win.
The Wildcats now prepare for state, March 7-9 in Lincoln. The trip comes after a 1-6 start to the season.
“This is a resilient group,” Haselhorst said. “This is why we kept battling every day.”
As the post-game excitement continued around him, Meisenheimer was still trying to grasp the accomplishment.
“It’s crazy,” he said. “I’m still having trouble comprehending it, even at this point.”
For Haselhorst and the Wildcats, the task of refocusing for Lincoln now begins.
“We want to keep the machine lubed,” he said. “We have a 12-day layoff, so we don’t want to lose that groove.”
Kenesaw heads to the off-season with what will be a young but experienced squad next year after taking heavy graduation losses a year ago.
“We lost four starters off our runner-up team. Our seniors worked hard to bring these freshmen and sophomores along,” Einrem said. “They worked with these kids, got them a long ways.”