The adage of defense winning championships has been proven time and time again.
Rarely is it proven as drastically as it was in Cook Inlet Academy’s 32-21 victory over Nikolaevsk in the Peninsula Conference girls championship Friday at Cook Inlet Academy.
Saturday afternoon, the Nikolaevsk girls punched their ticket back to state after a six-year run was snapped last year with a dominant 45-27 win over Ninilchik in the tournament second-place game.
The girls MVP award went to Cook Inlet Academy senior Adara Warren. Nikolaevsk’s Bea and Steve Klaich won the girls and boys coach of the year awards, respectively.
The Eagles held the Warriors to 13 percent shooting Friday and also to their lowest point total since a season-opening, 21-20 victory against Nikiski’s junior varsity on Dec. 13.
“I’ve never coached in a game before where we shot 13 percent,” Bea Klaich said. “Ridiculous.”
Incidentally, the night after beating the Bulldogs JV, the Warriors thumped the Eagles 52-25. That shows how far Cook Inlet Academy has come to post a 31-27 victory over the Warriors to close the regular season on Feb. 22, and then Friday’s championship triumph.
Or maybe it really doesn’t show how far the Eagles have come. CIA won state in 2013, then had a run of nine straight state berths snapped in 2016. The following year, the Eagles didn’t even have a program.
Head coach Josh Hawley resurrected the program last season, but the Eagles won just three games. Friday night, their 14th victory of this season punched a ticket to state.
Warren, who paced CIA with 15 points, was there for all of it, from no team as a sophomore to a title as a senior.
“No. Not at all,” she said when asked if she thought the program would come back from extinction to win a crown during her time there. “Our coach believed in us so much.”
Hawley got an aggressive, athletic group of 11 girls this year and decided to mold them into a defensive force, even if that meant the offense could always use more work.
“We focused on defense a lot this season, then we just have our offensive stuff down there,” Warren said. “The focus is on defense.”
Many of the girls come from Cook Inlet’s soccer program.
“They are a bunch of soccer players that hustle down and play great defense,” Klaich said after being denied a fifth conference title in seven years. “I felt like our offense was disrupted the whole game.
“The shots we normally make we didn’t make. We definitely were off.”
At times, the game did have the low-scoring qualities of a soccer match. CIA led 3-2 after the first quarter before Nikolaevsk tied it up at 8 by halftime. The second half was a scoreboard-burner by comparison, with the Eagles winning the third quarter 8-6 and the fourth quarter 16-7.
“Nikolaevsk’s shots did not fall for them,” Hawley said. “That’s not something I’m used to seeing.”
The coach said his team had something to do with that. Relentless hustle took away split seconds that normally allow a shooter to tuck the elbow or square the feet. But some things just have to be chalked up to an off night by the Warriors, like the 6-of-21 performance from the foul line and the three points of leading scorer Elizabeth Fefelov.
“The girls didn’t stop,” Hawley said. “They kept attacking. I tell them to be like a battering ram. Sooner or later, that door will open.”
After Nikolaevsk cut the gap to 16-14 shortly into the fourth quarter, that door started opening with an 8-2 run for a 24-16 lead with 3:14 to play.
The Warriors battled back when Justina Fefelov hit a pair of foul shots for a 24-21 game with 2:30 left, but that was as close at Nikolaevsk would get. CIA would nail a series of foul shots, including four by Linnaea Dohse, to ice it.
“Both teams got pretty tired,” Warren said. “We had to show grit, as coach puts it.”
Anna Cizek added 10 points for the Eagles, while Markiana Yakunin led Nikolaevsk with seven.
“Glory to God,” Warren said. “It all goes to him.”
Nikolaevsk girls 45, Ninilchik 27
The girls second-place game earlier Saturday was a done deal by the fourth quarter, thanks to stellar defensive play by the Warriors.
A day after shooting a meager 13 percent against Cook Inlet Academy in the girls championship game, the Warriors had better luck against a determined Wolverines squad.
“I’m relieved my girls bounced back, because they were demoralized yesterday,” Klaich said. “They got it together and came out wanting to win and they showed it the first half.”
Elizabeth Fefelov led the Warriors charge with 18 points, including 10 in a third-quarter spurt by Nikolaevsk that helped push the game out of reach for the Wolverines.
Klaich said the scoring purge helped rejuvenate the squad as they now get ready for another state run.
“When my team is smiling, they play well,” Klaich said. “When they get down and have negative thoughts, it’s difficult to play well.”
Ninilchik was paced by Jade Robuck, who tallied 10 points, including eight in the third quarter. Isabella Koch and Madi Cooper both added six points each before fouling out.
Head coach Tessa Lemons said the team exploited every possible option in hopes of getting to the big dance, but after an upset win over Lumen Christi on the tournament’s opening day, the end result was everything the Wolverines had in them.
“I don’t think they have anything to be sad about,” Lemons said. “I mean, we weren’t expected to make it this far.”
Nikolaevsk closed the first half on an 8-0 run, but it wasn’t enough to drop Ninilchik, which trailed 19-8 at halftime.
However, the Warriors picked it up immediately out of the locker rooms. Fefelov drained a corner 3 in the first 15 seconds of the third quarter, helping spark a 13-0 run by Nikolaevsk.
Ninilchik’s biggest problem came in the form of foul trouble, which forced Lemons to delineate who would get minutes in the second half, a decision made tougher by a weary team.
“Our kids are going to school every day, and traveling on top of it,” Lemons said. “They didn’t get to sleep in and get rested. They couldn’t play if they didn’t go to school for the full day, and they were the only ones doing that.
“I think that took it out of them.”
Both Cooper and Koch were tagged with their fourth fouls in the second half. Koch, an all-tournament team member, received her fourth with 4:30 left in the third quarter, then fouled out with 4:09 remaining in the game.
That left Nikolaevsk opportunities in the second half with Koch off the floor.
Both Elizabeth and Zoya Fefelov connected on 3s in the third quarter that helped put the game away. The lead grew to 40-12 with 1:40 left in the frame, all but sealing up the win.
Ninilchik girls 33, Lumen Christi 20
The Wolverines, seeded last in the tournament due to their 0-8 conference record, picked up a second victory at the tournament to move into the second-place game, where the winner goes to state.
Ninilchik also defeated Lumen Christi in the opening round Wednesday. The Archangels led 5-3 after a quarter and 8-7 at halftime before Ninilchik tied it at 16 entering the final quarter. They then won that final quarter 17-4 as Lumen, which dressed just five players, had two players foul out.
Isabella Koch paced the Wolverines with 10 points. Sophia Dupras had eight for Lumen.
Girls All-Tournament team — Anna Cizek, CIA; Elizabeth Fefelov, Nikolaevsk; Markiana Yakunin, Nikolaevsk; Isabella Koch, Ninilchik; Kiara Sullivan, Birchwood Christian; Sophia Dupras, Lumen Christi; Jaime Martin, Lumen Christi; Sophia Klaich, Nikolaevsk; Sophia Nelson, CIA; Justina Fefelov, Nikolaevsk.
Girls All-Conference 1st team — Elizabeth Fefelov, Nikolaevsk; Markiana Yakunin, Nikolaevsk; Adara Warren, CIA; Kiara Sullivan, Birchwood Christian; Jaime Martin, Lumen Christi; Sophia Dupras, Lumen Christi.
Girls All-Conference 2nd team — Isabella Koch, Ninilchik; Sophia Nelson, CIA; Sophia Klaich, Nikolaevsk; Faith Clark, Birchwood Christian; Anika Castenholtz, CIA.
Eagles 32, Warriors 21
CIA 3 5 8 16 — 32
Nikolaevsk 2 6 6 7 — 21
COOK INLET ACADEMY (32) — G. Nelson 0, Hyatt 0, S. Nelson 0, Dohse 7, A. Nelson 0, Castenholz 0, Cizek 10, Warren 15. Totals — 12 8-17 32.
NIKOLAEVSK (21) — Klaich 5, Z. Fefelov 0, Lasiter 0, Yakunin 7, Kalugin 0, J. Fefelov 6, E. Fefelov 3. Totals — 7 6-21 21.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 1 (Klaich). Team fouls — CIA 17, Nikolaevsk 20. Fouled out — A. Nelson, Klaich.
Wolverines 33, Archangels 20
Ninilchik 3 4 9 17 — 33
Lumen 5 3 8 4 — 20
NINILCHIK (33) — Re. Okonek 4, Jasper1, A. Calabrese 0, Robuck 5, Corey 0, Koch 10, Cooper 8, S. Calabrese 1, Denboer 1, Ofstad 3, Ra. Okonek 0. Totals — 10 9-28 33.
LUMEN CHRISTI (20) — Estes 5, Thorsness 0, Warren 0, Dupras 8, Martin 7. Totals — 6 6-18 20.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 2 (Koch 2); Lumen Christi 2 (Martin 2). Team fouls — Ninilchik 20, Lumen Christi 20. Fouled out — Koch, Thorsness, Dupras.
Warriors 45, Wolverines 27
Ninilchik 2 6 8 11 —27
Nikolaevsk 11 8 21 5 —45
NINILCHIK (27) — Okonek 0, Jasper 0, Calabrese 0, Robuk 10, Corey 3, Koch 6, Cooper 6, Calabrese 0, Denboer 0, Ostad 2, Okonek 0.
NIKOLAEVSK (45) — Klaich 8, Z. Fefelov 5, Lasiter 1, Yakunin 5, Kalugin 0, J. Fefelov 8, E. Fefelov 18.
3-point FG — Ninilchik 0; Nikolaevsk 4 (E. Fefelov 2, Klaich 1, Z. Fefelov 1).