As the final seconds wound down, the Lincoln High Links decided not to foul and accepted their fate in the heavyweight match. The Millard South faithful rose to their feet and recognized their team’s goals that have now become reality.
For their players, emotions are overcome by triumph and jubilation, as they reached the top of the mountain and enshrined themselves into the history books as the final buzzer went off. For the Links, pain and sorrowness rained down from the Pinnacle Bank Arena rafters, as they saw their season long dream come just short, in a 72-60 loss.
The beauty and darkside of March seamlessly blend together on the hardwood. For the Millard South Patriots, the darkside of March has been a recurring theme for the better part of seven years. Led by a trio of Division l players, expectations of winning a state title remained the same heading into the 2022-2023 season. Their past shortcomings, along with senior leadership and relentless hard work have propelled them to the apex of girls high school basketball, as they won their first state championship since 1996.
Seven seniors occupied the rotational minutes for the Patriots this season. This same core group had lost three consecutive years in the state semifinals and as the season took flight one question lingered over their entire season. Could they win in March?
“Haters have been our motivators this entire year, ” senior guard and Kent State commit Mya Babbitt said. “We went out there every game trying to prove our doubters wrong.”
The motivation was fuel to the Patriots’ fire, with their past experiences at the state tournament in their rearview mirror, yet not forgotten.
“A lot of hard work and dedication was put into these last four years,” senior forward and UNO commit Cora Olsen said. “It wasn’t easy hearing people say we couldn’t ever do it.”
The hard work and persistent pursuit of a championship helped form an unbreakable bond between these senior players, but the challenging moments are where they found their strength in one another, after coming up short in the 2019-2020, 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 season.
“The first three times we lost at state definitely gave us some experience and insight, ” senior forward and Concordia commit Juliana Jones said. “We knew something felt different about this year. We came out, played our brand of basketball and stuck together.”
The Patriots played their brand of basketball all year, as they scored the most points per game in class A girls’ basketball, with an average of 71 points scored per game.
“This is a team effort all the way around and we wouldn’t be able to perform at a high level without everyone putting in their part, ” senior guard and California Baptist commit Khloe Lemon said. “We accomplished everything together and have grown very close.”
Millard South came into the 2023 NSAA Class A tournament clicking on all cylinders and entered its Quarterfinal matchup against Lincoln Southwest at 23-2 overall. Of those wins, 20 were by double digits. The top-seeded Patriots throttled the Silver Hawks from the opening tip in a 74-58 win.
Millard South’s semi-final matchup against Bellevue West, a team it had split against in the regular season, was over before it started.
“We honestly just came together, played team basketball and executed at a high level,” senior forward and Hastings commit Grace Prucha said. “That was one of the best games we played all year.”
The Patriots began the game on a 13-0 run before many of the fans could get to their seats and rolled into the championship game for the first time since 2018. Their 68-47 win was highlighted by a record-breaking performance by Mya Babbitt, as she made eight 3-point-shots, a state tournament record.
“I work a lot on my shot but, I know my teammates are the ones that put me in position to succeed and take those shots, “Babbitt said. “Breaking that record is crazy to think about, but not something I’m shocked I was able to accomplish.”
The state championship game against Lincoln High was nothing like the beatdowns Millard delivered its previous two games. After they trailed by seven at the end of the first quarter, the Patriots responded in a big way and led by eight points at halftime.
“We played a few games like that in the past, so we knew to stick together, remain focused and calm despite the pressure of the moment,” senior guard and Mount Marty commit Miranda Kelly said. “We just stayed true to ourselves and didn’t let them dictate our style of play.”
The Patriots did just that and controlled the entire second half despite the high-pressure moments throughout the final 16 minutes and won the game 72-60. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the light at the end of the tunnel emerged, as seven seniors wrapped up their high school careers, champions once and for all.
“You always see everyone in the state championship throw the ball up and jump into a dog pile when the buzzer sounds,” Olsen said. “For me to be able to look around, see everyone’s emotions in that moment, after all we’ve been through the last four years, was very special.”
Olsen, along with Babbitt and Lemon, combined for 70 of the 72 points scored in the championship game, a fitting end for a trio that won 104 games together since their freshman year. The core of this team is found among those three, but their ability to thrive on the court is a credit to their selfless teammates that put them in positions to excel.
“What didn’t get mentioned enough was Lexi getting 16 rebounds in that championship game, “Lemon said. “It’s a perfect example of how all of us contribute to winning in different ways.”
Finkenbiner was able to thrive in her role while seen unnoticed as she put her stamp on the state title game.
“In practice we emphasize the small details all the time,” senior guard Lexi Finkenbiner said. “I’ve taken pride in doing things well that go unnoticed and don’t get talked about in the stat sheet.”
The culture that’s been engraved within this program is one that preaches unselfishness and togetherness, a true indictment of the leadership coach Bryce Meyers provides as he’s orchestrated his teams to a 104-7 record over the past four years.
“He’s a competitor, “Lemon said. “He took us under his wing when we were freshmen. The way I’ve grown as an all-around player is something I’m proud of. Coach has honestly become a father figure for me. I know I can go to him for anything.”
Coach Meyers has prepared this group for the next chapter of their lives and basketball careers, but so has the school they all regard as home, creating lasting memories and lessons they will carry with them as they move onto their next destination.
“Hard work and dedication will end up at some point going your way. You might not see it while you’re going through it, but at the end it will make sense,” Kelly said.
This historical group of seniors will cherish the memories and lessons made within the walls of Millard South, but it’s the relationships that will make a lasting impact.
“I made so many great relationships at this school, “Babbitt said. “They helped me believe that anything I set my mind to can turn into reality. I know I’m going to grow into a completely different person, which honestly excites me. I’ll meet so many new people that will help me continue to pursue my dreams and I can’t wait to get it started.”
The bonds this group has made off the court is a credit to the success they were able to translate on the basketball court. As all seven seniors head their separate ways, their paths in life will always be intertwined, creating friendships that last a lifetime.
“I hope to take these friendships that I’ve built to college, “Jones said. “As we all go our separate paths, I hope we stay close as a team and don’t forget how much of an impact we all had on one another. The bond we’ve created will last a lifetime.”