COLUMBUS, Neb. -- Lexington got a glimmer of hope that the Minutemen could stage a huge upset Thursday, Dec. 27, over McCook's boys in the first round of the Greater Nebraska Athletic Conference Tournament.
Those glimmers turned into darkness as the Bison used several scoring spurts to claim a 59-43 victory in the GNAC Tournament play at the Raider Fieldhouse on the Central Community College campus north of Columbus.
McCook got off to a fast start, using a strong defensive effort to turn Lexington turnovers into baskets for an 18-2 lead at the end of the opening quarter. Back-to-back 3-point shots by Mack Alspaugh and Sean Backer boosted the Bison to a 24-4 advantage early in the second period.
Lexington came back with eight unanswered points before Austin Cherry drove the lane for a layup with 30 seconds left in the first half, then Cherry knocked down a 3-pointer before the first half buzzer to put McCook in control 29-12.
"Our game plan early was to definitely put some heavy ball pressure on (Lexington) and force them into some tough situations on offense," said McCook head coach Jeremy Yilk. "We got a lot of steals and transition buckets and that just jump-started us for the game. In the second quarter we kind of got tired and got a little lackadaisical with some of our passes and our offensive execution. That gave them some easy opportunities themselves in transition. It kind of evened itself out a little bit in the first half."
Lex put together a run early in the third quarter to cut the McCook lead to 31-21. Backer hit another 3-pointer, then Alspaugh added two more baskets in the final two minutes to help McCook regain control with a 40-26 advantage entering the fourth quarter.
Zayne Gillen stole a Lex pass and fed Cody Wudtke for a layup, then Backer connected again from long range to give McCook a 48-33 cushion. Wudtke later scored seven straight points for the Bison to help McCook seal the victory.
"It was kind of a game of runs. We had our peaks and valleys throughout the course of the game a little bit," Coach Yilk said. "We changed some things up defensively, gave them some different looks. That was kind of a key with our zone defense and pressing a little bit, that kind of gave them some fits and helped us extend the lead a little bit.
"Basically we put it away in the fourth quarter. We went with a little smaller lineup, and a little faster to counter their zone look a little bit as well."
The Bison enjoyed a balanced scoring output. Wudtke led all scorers with 15 points. Alspaugh added 14 points and Backer had 13 for the Bison.
Lexington was led by Cody Kenton with 12 points.
THE McCOOK boys had not played since a 50-47 win at Holdrege Dec. 15. Of course, the Bison had not held an organized practice session since last Friday due to the holiday moratorium mandated by the Nebraska School Activities Association.
"Overall it was a good win, especially coming off the break," Yilk said. "We look forward to the challenge of North Platte Friday."
THE BISON BOYS advance to the GNAC Tournament semifinals Friday, Dec. 28, against North Platte. The Bison and Bulldogs will square off in a rematch at 7:15 p.m. Friday at the Columbus Senior High School gym. McCook edged North Platte, 52-48, in a regular-season battle at the McCook Senior High gym Dec. 14.
Coach Yilk expects another tough battle with the Bulldogs.
"It's the semis of the conference tournament," Yilk said. "This is a very difficult tournament. It shouldn't take much to get these kids going. It's North Platte, round two, and they're going to be up for it."
THE BISON watched North Platte thump Hastings, 71-54, in first-round action in Columbus earlier Thursday.
"North Platte didn't do a whole lot of stuff that they didn't do already, but there will be some wrinkles involved, some new stuff going on," Yilk said. "So it will be an adjustment as we go, and a new environment playing at the (Columbus) high school as well. We're looking forward to it."
The Bison will again face a tall task in stopping North Platte's strong inside duo of 6-foot-7 Drew Callaghan and 6-5 Luke Wright. McCook handled the North Platte bigs in the first meeting, with Callaghan scoring just 10 points after getting in foul trouble, and Wright finishing with 9.
"It starts with our defense. We've got to be able to take away their inside game, protect the paint, and then take our chances with their shooters on the perimeter," Yilk said of the game plan for Friday's rematch. "(North Platte) has very good shooters, and we were fortunate enough times that they didn't hit some shots that they normally hit. We're going to try and play the percentages again (Friday) and try and do some things to take that away and force them into some tough situations where maybe some other kids have to score points for them to beat us."
THE BISON-North Platte winner advances to the GNAC Tournament boys championship game Saturday, Dec. 29, at 3:15 p.m. at the Columbus Senior High School gym. The loser will play for third place Saturday at 11:45 a.m. at the Columbus Senior High gym.
Unbeaten and top seed Scottsbluff meets Kearney in Friday's other boys semifinal contest.