The Ninilchik boys basketball team defended their Class 2A state title with a 66-53 victory over Tikigaq on Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The title is the fourth in the history of the program, the fourth in eight years for head coach for Nick Finley and the second Class 2A title since Ninilchik voluntarily moved up to 2A last season. It comes against a Tikgaq program that wore the crown in 2019 and 2021.
“Every time we bring home a state championship, we don’t take it for granted,” Finley said. “It’s a hard thing to do and not a lot of kids across the state get the chance to be a state champion.
“The kids put in the time in the offseason and work their tails off in practice every day. That’s what it amounts to. They deserved to walk out of there last night with the trophy held high.”
The top-seeded Wolverines (24-5 overall) won despite losing the three mainstays from a team that went 26-0 last season.
An offseason in which Ninilchik played 45 games prepared the team for whatever Tikigaq (17-8) could dish out.
Ninilchik senior Cole Moore said the team was a little disjointed in the first 10 offseason games, but that changed at a tournament in Palmer in June. He said that’s the tournament the Wolverines felt like a team again.
“It was really just about putting the work in during the summer and winter,” Moore said. “We lost a lot of firepower.
“It was really about showing people we could do it again even though we lost three very good players.”
Last season, after winning the state title game against Metlakatla, Finley said he huddled with his coaches and talked about what a handful Metlakatla would be this season. The Harpooners defeated Metlakatla in the semifinals.
“Tikigaq knocked off that Metlakatla team,” Finley said. “We knew we’d have our hands full going into the championship game.”
After Landon Colburn, Lukah Kalugin and Justin Trail starred last season, two role players from last year in seniors Moore and Jaylin Scott were ready to lead the team to a title Saturday. After not scoring in the first quarter, Moore finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds. Scott had 14 points and nine rebounds.
After growing up in Tennessee, Scott moved to Seldovia with his grandparents and brother. His freshman year, he moved to Ninilchik since Seldovia doesn’t have enough players for a basketball team. He said he immediately became a fan of Finley’s positive coaching style.
“It’s great to go back to back,” Scott said. “A lot of people last year thought with Landon and Lukah gone, we’d be down this season. To prove them wrong shows that as a team, we can do anything.”
Kade McCorison, who Finley said is the most ready to play freshman he’s coached at Ninilchik, was undaunted by the big lights in scoring 15 on 7 of 11 shooting, while senior Peyton Edens recovered from offseason knee surgery to score 12. Junior Rowan Mahoney had four.
Moore, Scott and Edens were named to the all-tournament team.
Tikigaq went on a 12-0 run to take a 14-7 lead after the first quarter.
Finley said his team normally gets rid of the jitters after a few minutes, but Saturday that seemed to take longer. It didn’t help that the strong majority in a very full Alaska Airlines Center were cheering for Point Hope.
“I think that shook us a little bit,” Scott said. “We just tried to get back in our groove and focus on defense. Then the shots started going in.”
Scott said the slate of 45 games in the offseason helps in tough moments. He said because Ninilchik plays against teams with the firepower of Dimond or Lathrop, the Wolverines are used to being put in tough situations.
Moore added that the coaching staff does a great job of preparing Ninilchik not to fold when things go wrong in a game.
“It comes from Nick and Rod (Van Saun) and everyone,” Moore said. “They always say to start with the little things, and everything else will come. You’ve got to do the little things like getting defensive rebounds and boxing out, and playing good D.”
Ninilchik closed the second quarter on a 10-0 run to trail 28-27 at the half. A major problem for the Wolverines in the first half was 11 turnovers.
Not only did turnovers keep Ninilchik from getting shots up, but they got Harpooners star Joelian Lane into the open floor. Finley estimated Lane got just less than half of his 25 points on fast breaks after turnovers.
“We had to stop 24 and get the ball out of his hands,” Moore said of Lane. “24 is a great player and without the ball in his hands, they struggle offensively.”
Moore scored the final five points of the first half and kept on cooking to start the third quarter. When he hit a 3-pointer to give the Wolverines a 37-28 lead, he had scored 13 of the game’s last 15 points, with the other two coming from Scott. That 3-pointer also capped a 20-0 run for Ninilchik.
Moore said he was struggling in the first half. At halftime, Finley told Moore to stay confident. Moore said he got a layup and 3-pointer to start the second half, and that finally got him in his groove.
“That 20-0 run was the game,” Finley said.
The coach said that Point Hope did a great job tracking Moore in the first half.
“In the second half, they just lost track of him multiple times,” Finley said. “A lot of that is our kids running sets to get Cole open and running them well.”
Moore would score 11 points in the third quarter as Ninilchik outscored Tikigaq 21-8 to take a 48-36 lead.
When Tikigaq tried to rally in the fourth, getting as close as 55-47 with 3:22 left, it was Scott’s turn to hold off the Harpooners. He had seven points in the first 5:30 of the quarter.
“The shots we made definitely forced them out on defense and allowed me to get better shots and rebounds,” Scott said.
Ninilchik outrebounded Point Hope 19-9 in the second half on the way to a 31-20 advantage for the game.
Joelian Lane had 25 points to lead Tikigaq, while Aqquilluk Hank had 13 points inside early for the Harpooners, but eventually Ninilchik found a way to contain him. Benjamin Lane added eight for Tikigaq.
Finley said Joelian Lane is an explosive talent that didn’t allow the Wolverines to relax, even with a double digit lead entering the final minute. The coach added that Mahoney had his best game of the season due to the job Mahoney did on Lane in the half court.
In addition to Edens, Scott and Moore, Cooper Adams, Wyatt McCloskey and Cody Blossom walk off the floor for the last time for Ninilchik as champs.
“We’re losing six seniors and we went around the room after the game and the seniors talked to the underclassmen,” Finley said. “They told them, ‘Don’t waste your time. Put in the meaningful work it takes to get better. It goes so fast.’”
Moore said he believes players like Mahoney and McCorison can keep Ninilchik on top if they put in the work.
“I’m glad I went to morning workouts and open gyms,” he said. “I’m glad I got out of bed when I didn’t want to. It was all worth it in the end.”
Finley said he’s very lucky to get so much commitment from assistants Van Saun and Brian Moore, plus the players and community.
“It’s a very unique culture we’ve kind of developed here,” Finley said. “In Ninilchik awhile back, we had the same thing going with coach (Dan) Leman. He’s one of the guys I lived with when I first came up here, and I kind of aspired to be someone like him.”
Leman won eight state titles as the head coach of the Ninilchik girls. Finley is halfway there.
“If they continue with open gyms, morning workouts and consistently trying to improve their games, they’ll win a lot more championships,” Scott said.