OMAHA — Warming up Saturday afternoon, the Bulldogs were minutes away from tipoff with Omaha Skutt Catholic on their home court. The Alliance High School boys basketball team had reached the B-2 final as a wildcard on the strength of a 13-10 season, with every win a testament to their determination. After a close first half, Skutt pulled away for a 70-39 win and berth in the Class B state tournament.

As the No. 15 seed AHS traveled across the state to play No. 2 Skutt. The “bus lag” that can be a factor was not evident as the Bulldogs came out firing. The Skutt SkyHawks surrendered the ball on their opening possession with a walk. Alliance played through the full court pressure and worked the ball around. Senior Owen Shelmadine popped a three-pointer and the Bulldogs led 3-0.

Skutt answered immediately, passed through an AHS double-team for their own trey to tie 3-3.The teams traded possessions without a score. Alliance’s Bradyn Palmer committed the first foul of the game and Skutt converted both free throws to lead 5-3.

Alliance played the hosts hard the rest of the quarter and stayed on their heels. Mason Hiemstra sank a trey and AHS regained the lead 6-5. Again, Skutt answered on a three-pointer from Tyson Gordon and regained the lead, 8-6. The SkyHawks went on a 5-0 run. Alliance battled back to move within a possession as the quarter ended. Hiemstra bounced in a three-ball to cut the lead 13-11 with 1:39 in the quarter. On the other end, Skutt missed twice then scored after a fight for the rebound. Both teams founds the basket again before the buzzer and started the second quarter with Skutt ahead 15-13.

“(I was) really pleased,” AHS head coach Michael Baker said of the opening effort. “Came out focused, battled on both ends of the (court).” He added they missed shots they needed to make.

The game took a Skutt turn in the second quarter as they outscored the visitors 20-13. Alliance stayed within reach going into halftime. Hiemstra energized the AHS offense with 17 first-half points. The Bulldogs also made the most of their time at the line going 4 of 5 overall, including 3 of 4 by Corbin Stark.

Skutt opened the second on a 6-0 run. Hiemstra scored the first AHS points of the second with a trey to make the score 27-18. Skutt managed a four-point play when Austin Ash hit a trey while being fouled by Shelmadine, then made the free throw. Alliance’s Reece Jensen sank a trey from the corner and the Bulldogs pulled within six, 27-21 - the closest AHS would come for the rest of the game.

“We were within striking range (the second quarter),” Baker said. “Their speed and strength was starting to take its toll. It was an extremely physical game.” He noted the team was not getting many open looks, “and when we did, rushed the shot.”

Alliance competed the entire way though would not make up ground coming out of the locker room. Skutt outscored Alliance 35-12 in the second half, improving to 23-3.

The Bulldogs played 24 teams this season. As for how Skutt stacked up to the rest? Baker compared them to Douglas and Rapid City Stevens. He predicted Skutt will make a run at the Class B title.

From Alliance’s perspective, Saturday’s game provided experience to a team that hopes to return everyone except two seniors. If the Bulldogs return to a district final in 2019, they, “could handle it better and come out on top,” Baker said.

Shelmadine and Caden Dean were the two seniors on the AHS roster. “Owen, an outstanding leader,” Baker said. Shelmadine, he added, often made clutch shots and guarded the best players. Though Dean was not a starter, he saw time on the court throughout the season. “Both nice, great young men who will be great things in the future.” Baker cited Dean’s role during practice and overall. The rest of the roster includes four juniors and the rest sophomores.

Alliance hit its stride around mid-January, Baker reflected. The team, “met expectations and some some ways exceeded them. Looking for good things . . .”

Baker returned as AHS head coach this season, years after previously holding the job. “(This season) went really well, mainly because of the players,” he said. Baker added he had the support of the district’s administrators.

Fall practice will return soon. Before then, Baker explained, most of the team members will play at least one sport before November. Camps are also available during June.

“Bright future if their friends are working,” Baker said.