It may be a cold night in January, but the Ninilchik boys and Cook Inlet Academy girls know that conference games count just the same.
The Ninilchik boys and CIA girls pulled out Peninsula Conference victories Tuesday night at Cook Inlet Academy in Soldotna. The girls game went 34-29 to the Eagles, while the boys game went 74-54 to the Wolverines.
The CIA boys (0-2 conference, 0-4 overall) pushed Ninilchik (1-0, 4-0) and stayed close, holding the Wolverines to a single-digit lead by the opening of the fourth quarter, but Ninilchik finally pulled away with a 17-6 run, part of a 25-point, fourth-quarter burst for the Wolverines.
“They all knew these games are important at the beginning of the year,” said Ninilchik head coach Dick Hawkins. “Now is when it counts.”
Ben Botero led Ninilchik with a game-high 22 points while teammate Cole Hadro added 20, including eight in the fourth quarter. The Eagles were paced by Mason Zeigler’s 20 points.
The win was another in the hat of Hawkins, who went 4-0 coaching against CIA last season. The season ended roughly for the Wolverines, who lost two straight state-qualifying games at the conference tournament in March and missed out on the big dance entirely.
Hawkins said the Ninilchik boys’ recent holiday break did not go very well due to a string of illnesses that took over the team. Hawkins said only one player was able to make all the scheduled practices over the two weeks, and the added lull of midwinter has left the team a bit sloppy on the court.
“We made a lot of unforced errors but that’s typical of this time of year,” he said.
CIA couldn’t close out in search of its first win, something that first-year head coach Brian Moore alluded to after the game.
“I told the guys that we need to cut the lead to six points at the end of the (third) quarter, and it went the other way,” Moore said.
After Botero set the pace early on with nine points in the opening eight minutes, it was Hadro that helped fuel the closing run for Ninilchik. CIA kept its rivals in sight, trailing 35-28 at halftime and just 49-40 by the end of the third quarter.
In the final eight minutes, Ninilchik was able to make its move. Hadro drilled a pair of 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, including one with 4:05 left to play that pushed the lead to 62-46. Hadro then collected a defensive rebound on the next possession and drove the length of the floor for a layup.
Botero put back a second-chance jumper following a missed free throw to add to the lead.
In the girls game, the host Eagles weathered the storm as Ninilchik exploded for 19 points in the fourth quarter after scoring just 10 in the first three frames combined. Returning as the defending Peninsula Conference champions, the CIA girls are working to find scoring depth after the graduation of conference MVP Adara Warren.
Ninilchik, meanwhile, is back in 2019-20 after missing out on last spring’s 1A state tournament after losing the conference tournament second-place game to Nikolaevsk.
CIA led 21-10 at the third-quarter buzzer after holding the Wolverines to just one point in the third with no made field goals.
From there, Ninilchik started sinking buckets and eventually got seven points in the fourth quarter from Jade Robuck and six from Madi Cooper, but the Wolverines’ comeback fell short.
Robuck finished the game with a game-high 12 points while Cooper had nine. CIA was paced by Anna Henderson and Tatum Rozak, who netted nine each.
The Eagles (1-1 conference, 2-3 overall) head coach Josh Hawley said crashing the glass helped CIA get the lead early, but sloppy play late nearly gave it up.
“It was just about teaching poise and patience,” Hawley said. “Realizing what the defense gives you.”
Wolverines 74, Eagles 54
Ninilchik 20 15 14 25 —74
CIA 11 17 12 14 —54
NINILCHIK (74) — Collins 0, Botero 22, Hadro 20, Scott 6, Nelson 7, Clark 14, Johnson 0, McCloskey 0, Lemons 3, Blossom 0, Mumey 2.
CIA (54) — Matheson 2, Johnson 2, Schilling 0, Henderson 2, Bears 4, Moore 4, Cruz 0, Walsh 0, E. Boyd 5, J. Boyd 6, Zeigler 20, Jo. Boyd 9, Cragg 0.
3-point FG — CIA 3 (Ja. Boyd 2, Moore 1); Ninilchik 8 (Hadro 3, Botero 2, Nelson 2, Lemons 1).
Team fouls — CIA 8; Ninilchik 14.
Eagles 34, Wolverines 29
Ninilchik 4 5 1 19 —29
CIA 9 4 8 13 —34
NINILCHIK (29) — Calabrese 2, Robuck 12, Cooper 9, Denboer 0, Ofstad 4, Okonet 1.
CIA (34) — Henderson 9, Hyatt 5, Smith 0, Dohse 1, Nelson 4, Liles 0, Castenholz 6, Wahl 0, Rozak 9.
3-point FG — Ninilchik 1 (Robuck); CIA 0.