LINCOLN, Neb. — If the dream was to end her career with a state championship, did the actual moment live up to that dream?

Lacey Sprakel’s tears and smiles provided the answer.

“Yes, it really did,” she said after she and the Crofton Lady Warriors captured the Class C2 title on Saturday night at the Nebraska State Girls’ Basketball Tournament in Lincoln.

“It was the best feeling ever. I couldn’t stop crying.”

For good reason, too.

Crofton had just edged Ponca 46-42 in a back-and-forth affair at Pinnacle Bank Arena to give the Lady Warriors their ninth state title. Yet, it was the first since 2016, which meant it was the first one for Crofton’s three seniors (Sprakel, Kaley Einrem and Allie Dahl).

“It’s been a while,” said junior Alexis Folkers, who scored 11 points.

“We were really determined this year. The last few years we’ve come up short, and our seniors, we really wanted to win a state championship for them.”

To do so, though, the Lady Warriors (26-3) were going to have to get past a familiar opponent in Ponca, which boasts a talented — and long — group of sophomores.

“I knew tonight was going to be different than the first two games of the state tournament,” Crofton head coach Aaron Losing said. “Ponca is just a different level defensively than what we’ve seen down here this week.

“I expected a game like this, that we were going to have to battle through some adversity.”

Ponca (21-5), the No. 6 seed in the Class C2 bracket, captured the moment for most of the first half, as Samantha Ehlers — one of those sophomore standouts — scored 14 points to give the Indians a 28-25 lead at halftime.

The lead changed hands a few times in the third quarter, but Ponca sophomore Ashlyn Kingsbury drained a three-pointer with 1:08 left to give the Indians a 38-34 lead heading into the fourth quarter.

What was the message for Crofton?

“We just have to stick with what we’re doing,” Losing said.

“We needed to rebound the ball better. We needed to figure out ways to counteract some of the things they were doing defensively,” he added.

Gracen Evans, another sophomore, gave Ponca a 40-37 lead with 3:48 remaining, but on the next trip, Sprakel hauled in an offensive rebound and was fouled. Her two free throws cut the deficit to one, and Folkers then stole the ball at halfcourt and drove in for a go-ahead layup with 2:51 left.

Folkers made two free throws with 1:58 remining to push Crofton’s lead to 43-41. Evans and Kingsbury each made one free throw to get Ponca within 43-42 with 1:19 left, and Crofton then committed a turnover with 54 seconds remaining.

Kaley Einrem, a senior for Crofton, sank two free throws with 22 seconds left, and Kingsbury missed a three on the next trip down the court. Jayden Jordan, a junior for Crofton, closed things out with a free throw with five seconds left.

And that sealed the victory.

Although the Lady Warriors committed 21 turnovers and shot 34 percent, they were 18-of-23 at the free throw line. All those free throws shot in practice — three times each practice, for five minutes, according to Sprakel — paid off in the season’s defining moments.

“Coach is always like, make two free throws before we get some water,” Sprakel said of those free throw drills in practice.

“Not always; I let you get water,” Losing joked.

“That’s the one thing that wins games; if you make your free throws, especially in close games,” Sprakel added.

Jordan added 11 points and five steals for Crofton, while Sprakel tallied eight points and nine rebounds. Einrem added eight points, six rebounds, three assists and three steals, and junior Ella Wragge had five pointsa nd three rebounds. Freshman Ellie Tramp chipped in with five rebounds.

Ponca got 17 points and nine rebounds from Ehlers, 10 points and 10 rebounds from Evans, and 13 points from Kingsbury.

It’s Crofton, though, who was able to celebrate the state championship for its three seniors. Losing said he’s been around that group since they were in fourth grade.

“I’ve seen a lot of them over the years,” he said. “In junior high, they went to how many club tournaments, and they played a heck of a lot of games by the time they entered our program as freshmen.”

Each one of the three had things to learn over the years, but they all progressed in their own ways, he added.

“I’ve had a fun time watching them grow,” Losing said. “They had a ton of raw ability, but some things they needed to refine.”

Crofton will certainly miss what Sprakel, Einrem and Allie Dahl provided as seniors, but the Lady Warriors are set up for sustained success — with three junior starters (Folkers, Jordan and Wragge) and a host of other players on the way up.

Although Ponca will graduate five seniors (Alyssa Crosgrove, Evelyn Krusemark, Hannah Wahls, Lauryn Gill and Tailynn Lawyer), the future is certainly bright for the Indians.

Four of Ponca’s top-five scorers this year are sophomores.

Crofton’s ninth state championship broke a tie with Wynot for third-most titles in state history — South Sioux City leads the way with 12, followed by Sandy Creek and Lincoln Southeast with 10 each.

Where does this season’s team rank among Crofton’s nine title teams?

“This is a great group. This is one of the nine-best groups, right?,” Losing said, with a smile.

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