GLENWOOD — A turnover-fueled 15-2 run in the third quarter carried second-ranked Atlantic to a third victory over Creston Friday, 68-48.
The Trojans (22-1) take on Harlan (17-6) tonight at Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln in a substate final. The winner advances to the state tournament in Des Moines.
Harlan won its district final Friday in Denison, 51-43, over Carroll.
Sixth-ranked Creston finished a 19-4 season, with three of those losses to Atlantic.
“All credit to them,” said Panther coach Billy Hiatt. “Atlantic’s a good team. They’re well-coached, athletic. They’re going to have a chance to make some noise.”
Hiatt’s team was locked in a dogfight throughout a first half that saw neither team take a lead larger than four points. Atlantic held one-point margins of 13-12 and 29-28 at the end of the first two quarters, with Creston’s Trey Thomsen and Luke Neitzel hitting shots just before each buzzer.
The Panthers shot 69 percent from the field in the first half, including 6-of-7 by Neitzel in a 16-point barrage during the opening two periods. Briar Evans was also effective inside and in transition, dumping in nine first-half points.
Neitzel and Evans were each limited to six points in the second half, while the perimeter shooting never really heated up against an aggressive Trojan defense. Colby Taylor was dogged by 6-6 Dalton Franken, and Stuart Hoegh took on the assignment of staying with the hard-driving Neitzel.
Taylor, who sat much of the first half with two fouls, finished with six points and backcourt mate Thomsen’s only field goal was the 3-pointer at the end of the opening period.
Atlantic coach Steve Blazek, a Creston native, said defense was a key to his team’s second-half surge.
“Stuart Hoegh’s defense on Neitzel and Harrison Hoegh’s defense on Evans were big for us,” Blazek said. “We were better defensively on the box, and keeping Neitzel out of the lane on the dribble.”
Atlantic senior Sam Markham, who left for a minute in the third quarter to have a head wound wrapped, came back to score 14 of his 22 points after the injury. He agreed defensive changes were important to his team’s success.
“I didn’t guard anybody in the first half,” Markham said. “Neitzel just destroyed me and overpowered me down low. In the second half Stuart switched to him and did a great job. And Dalton shut down Colby Taylor pretty well. We fell back on our team defense.”
The critical stretch of the game occurred right after Evans took a fast break assist from Thomsen to lay it in for a 32-30 Creston lead with 5:40 left in the third.
Six quick points gave Atlantic a 36-32 lead. While Creston continued to turn the ball over, Stuart Hoegh banged in a 3-pointer to make it 39-32.
By the time the 15-2 run was over, and Markham was back in the game with a makeshift head wrap over his bleeding eyebrow, the Trojans held a double-digit lead (45-34). The quarter ended at 47-37.
“We were diving for the ball and I think Neitzel landed on me,” Markham said when asked about the gash above his left eyebrow. “I just wanted to get back in as fast as possible to help my team.”
“I think we turned it over three times in a row there,” Hiatt said. “Then we were trying to play catchup. We had good spacing and ran our lanes in the first half. In the second half we got kind of tight, and then you’re trying to thread the needle. It’s hard to play against good athletes if you’re not 100 percent sure the pass is there.”
Blazek said his team took advantage of opportunities. Creston had 14 turnovers to just four by the Trojans.
“We didn’t get a lot of of them off of our fullcourt pressure, but I thought we did a pretty good job in our halfcourt defense,” he said. “We got in the passing lanes a little harder.”
Atlantic shot 22-27 at the free throw line to just 5-8 by the Panthers, including 4-4 by Neitzel.
Atlantic’s three big scorers were nearly perfect at the line — Franken 8-8, Stuart Hoegh 6-6 and Markham 6-7.
“This group of kids, there’s been times when we haven’t shot it well, but they seem to be able to find a way to win,” Blazek said. “They’re pretty good at the end of games, grinding things out, making free throws and not turning the ball over.”
Both Blazek and Markham said beating this Creston team three times was no small achievement. Carroll Kuemper Catholic, a Class 2A state qualifier, was the only other team to defeat the Panthers.
“Creston is a fine basketball team,” Blazek said, “and they had a great year. We just feel fortunate to be moving on.”
Markham said these senior groups have been competing since Greg Franken coached the Atlantic elementary squad, and Bill Taylor coached Creston’s group in youth tournaments.
“I remember in seventh grade we won at home and lost down there,” Markham said. “We know they match up well with us. All five are quick, they have quick hands. Luke Neitzel is an elite athlete. Any time you can beat a team with an athlete like that three times, that’s pretty good.”
The same Creston roster that went 9-13 last year posted a 19-4 turnaround this season.
Nine seniors appeared for the last time for Creston — Caleb Thompson, Zach Powers, Bryce McIlravy, Kainen Somers, Ryan Cook, Evans, Neitzel, Taylor and Thomsen.
Underclassmen Cole Thompson and Jay Wolfe appeared in Fridays game. The JV had a 16-3 season, Hiatt noted.
“In practice every day we competed with all of them,” Hiatt said. “Next year we’ll have some success. Are we going to be as talented as this group? Hard to tell, but playing against these seniors every day should put them right back in the mix next year.”
ATLANTIC (68) — Sam Markham 8 6-7 22, Dalton Franken 5 8-8 19, Stuart Hoegh 2 6-6 12, Chad Christensen 3 0-1 7, Jared Fulk 2 0-1 4, Harrison Hoegh 1 1-2 3, Joey Wilker 0 1-2 1. Totals — 21 22-27 68. 3-point goals — 4-11 (S. Hoegh 2, Franken 1, Christensen 1). FG shooting — 21-45 (46.7 percent). Rebounds — 27 (Franken 8, H. Hoegh 5). Assists — 19 (Christensen 10, Markham 4). Steals — 10 (S. Hoegh 3, Christensen 3). Turnovers — 4. Team fouls — 14. Fouled out — H. Hoegh.
CRESTON (48) — Luke Neitzel 9 4-4 22, Briar Evans 7 0-0 15, Colby Taylor 2 1-1 6, Trey Thomsen 1 0-0 3, Kainen Somers 1 0-1 2. Totals — 20 5-8 48. 3-point goals — 3-11 (Taylor 1, Thomsen 1, Evans 1). FG shooting — 20-39 (51.2 percent). Rebounds — 21 (Evans 8, Neitzel 4, Thomsen 3, Wolfe 3). Assists — 11 (Neitzel 4, Thomsen 2). Steals — 1 (Wolfe 1). Blocked shots — 1 (Taylor 1). Turnovers — 14. Team fouls — 20. Fouled out — Thomsen, Evans.
Atlantic — 13 29 47 68
Creston — 12 28 37 48