Tired, disheveled, a bit banged up, but with joyous expressions on their faces, the Ninilchik girls basketball squad celebrated Friday night like the old days.
After seeing Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk exchange the Peninsula Conference crown the past several years, the Wolverines were beginning to wonder if they would ever see it again. The senior class had taken loss after loss in their early years, and improved squads the last two seasons fell just short of state glory.
“When we were freshman, we got our butts kicked every week,” said senior Krista Sinclair. “We were just wanting to score into the double digits of points then.”
Those days are over for these Wolverines, who are now headed back to a place they used to roam quite frequently — March Madness Alaska.
Ninilchik conquered Nikolaevsk with a 45-35 championship victory last Friday night at Homer High School to claim its 15th Peninsula Conference girls crown in school history and first in seven years, snapping Nikolaevsk’s three-year stranglehold on the title and punching their first trip to state since 2010.
Nikolaevsk earned its fifth straight ticket to state Saturday with a 58-27 victory over Birchwood in the tournament second-place game.
Coincidentally, Nikolaevsk began its three-year run at the top in 2013 by beating CIA, which also had a streak of three years as conference champs.
“They’ve earned this one more than any other team I’ve seen,” said Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun. “They’ve gone through a lot of challenges and obstacles, and they won it.
“I’ve never had a group like this one.”
The qualification to the Class 1A state tournament will be the first for the Ninilchik girls, who previously went at the 2A level. For Van Saun, it’s his third time going as a coach of the Wolverines. Ninilchik was a yearly presence at the state tournament with Alaska High School Hall of Fame coach Dan Leman at the helm, making the trip 19 years in a row until the Wolverines missed it in 2011, Van Saun’s third season as coach.
With three years of piled up losses that gradually were beginning to feature close-but-no-cigar finishes, Ninilchik’s senior core of players were not ready to pour their hearts into another Peninsula Conference tournament only to be denied a trip to state yet again.
Two years ago, Ninilchik came up just three points short of a trip to state after losing to CIA in the conference tournament second-place game. Sinclair, who was then a sophomore, said that was a key turning point in Ninilchik’s turnaround.
“Early in the year, we were never close. We were getting mercy-ruled in every game,” Sinclair recalled. “Finally, when we got that close, we didn’t want to give that up again.”
With four straight trips to the big dance under its belt, Nikolaevsk had the experience factor over Ninilchik, but the Wolverines finally had the consistent play to beat the Warriors on Friday night.
“This year, my seniors and I decided we didn’t want to have that state anymore, we want to win,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair and teammate DeeAnn White both had 12 points to lead Ninilchik to the win.
Megan Hickman scored a game-high 16 points for Nikolaevsk. Warriors coach Bea Klaich said her team suffered from cold shooting.
“We missed shots,” Klaich said. “We shot 26 percent for the game, and we usually are better than that. We also are a good free-throw shooting team, and we were (4 for 15) today.”
Early on, great offensive work by Ninilchik was being nullified by Nikolaevsk on the other end, and Hickman in particular. The crafty senior used her speed and hops to work the middle ground and delivered four buckets for the Warriors in the first quarter. Following an offensive rebound bucket by Ninilchik senior Jordan Finney, Hickman quickly turned around and hit a jump shot on the other end at the buzzer, tying the game at 12 apiece after one quarter. Serafima Kalugin gave Nikolaevsk a brief lead at the start of the second quarter with a layup, but Alanna Goins took it back for Ninilchik with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. Later in the quarter, Sinclair grabbed a steal and delivered a layup to make the lead 17-14.
Ninilchik led 24-17 at halftime, but Nikolaevsk wouldn’t go away quietly. A layup by Hickman with 3:30 to play in the third quarter left the Warriors knocking at the Wolverines’ doorstep, as the basket cut the lead to 27-23.
However, a strong baseline drive by White a few possessions later helped put the lead back to six points, and a clutch triple by Sinclair with 35 seconds to go in the quarter left Ninilchik leading 34-26.
If the Wolverines thought they could cruise from there, they were mistaken, as Hickman and Kalugin combined to drop the lead right back to two points early in the fourth quarter. Hickman opened the final eight minutes with a jump shot off an offensive rebound, then Kalugin grabbed a steal and laid in the transition bucket to further cut the gap. Kalugin converted two foul shots with 5:45 to play in the game that left Ninilchik looking at a precarious 34-32 lead.
After Van Saun called timeout, Ninilchik seemed to get the message. Score fast. Sinclair dished an assist to Olivia Delgado, who put in the layup, and White popped in a transition layup on the next possession to give Ninilchik a 38-32 lead with 4:49 to go. With 3:37 to play, Finney got into the paint and scored to make the lead eight points, and White added another layup with 3:10 to play to stake out a 42-32 lead for the Wolverines.
A late trey by Vera Fefelov was the only bucket Nikolaevsk got in the final five minutes of play, and it was too late by then.
“We knew Ninilchik was a good team, we know they’ve been getting better every year,” Klaich said.
Van Saun praised the senior leadership of his team, with the three senior members of Sinclair, Finney and Goins combining for 27 points for Ninilchik.
“They just stayed persistent,” Van Saun said. “They willed it to happen.”
Nikolaevsk girls 58, Birchwood 27
The Warriors wasted no time in establishing their spot at state, racing out to a 13-4 lead in the first quarter and dominating Saturday’s second-place girls game.
Nikolaevsk led 29-14 at halftime, then outscored Birchwood 14-8 in the third quarter and 15-5 in the fourth to ice the win.
Megan Hickman led the Warriors with 19 points, while Serafima Kalugin scored 12.
Birchwood Christian girls 48, Lumen Christi 36
Haley Scott poured in 33 points to lead the fourth-seeded Rams past the third-seeded Archangels in the second-place semifinals.
Ninilchik boys take title
A year ago, the Seldovia boys brought their hometown its first state basketball championship after a rapid rise to the top of the Peninsula Conference hierarchy.
This year, the Ninilchik boys are trying to repeat the feat. This weekend was a great time to start.
The Wolverines held off a determined Seldovia squad Friday night at Homer High School to capture the Peninsula Conference boys championship with a narrow 57-55 victory over the Sea Otters. It is Ninilchik’s first conference title since 2002, and the first state appearance for the Wolverines since 2010.
And Ninilchik did it in a year in which the conference was loaded. That was driven home in the conference’s second-place game Saturday, when Nikolaevsk topped Seldovia 61-46 to earn the conference’s final state berth.
The Warriors make their third-straight state tournament, while Seldovia’s season is over. The Sea Otters had won the last two conference titles and last year’s Class 1A state championship.
Ninilchik coach Nick Finley said the novel experience of winning the conference tournament should benefit his team at state.
“It’s great, our boys played great,” Finley said. “We panicked a little there, but I think we really needed a game like this one.”
After sweeping through conference play in the regular season and rarely winning by only single digits, the Wolverines had to sweat through their first close shave of the conference season, seeing a 19-point lead in the fourth quarter slip away to nearly nothing in the final minute.
“We let them back in,” said Austin White, a junior center for Ninilchik. “We just had some defensive lapses there.”
“As the game goes on, the hoop just seems to get smaller and smaller,” added junior teammate Tyler Presley.
Presley scored a game-high 25 points to lead Ninilchik, including five 3s, while White had 18, including 12 in the first quarter.
Early on, Ninilchik seemingly had no trouble getting to the rim, as White used his 6-foot-8 height to drive and cut to the basket for floaters and layups.
“It’s definitely a mismatch in the low post,” White said. “We wanted to take away their shooters.”
But it was Seldovia’s dynamic duo of Aidan Philpot and Calem Collier that put on the finishing kick. Collier hit four 3s to finish with 17 points and Philpot recorded 14 points in the fourth quarter alone to end up with 23.
“They’re warriors, and they don’t quit,” Finley said. “Calem and Aidan wanted it, and they have the experience to make a comeback like that.”
Ninilchik led by as much as 51-32 in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, and seemingly on cruise control to the title, but Seldovia knew there was time left to make a run.
Philpot launched an innocuous 3 with 6:53 to play that began the charge, and by the time the scoreboard read 2:27, Seldovia had cut the lead to single digits at 54-45, following a triple by Robert Waterbury.
Philpot stole the ball and was fouled with 1:56 remaining and converted both free throws, then collected the ball on the next possession and buried a triple with 1:30 left to close the gap to 54-50. Suddenly, Ninilchik was feeling uneasy.
“We’re not used to winning close games, so when it got down to the wire, it was a great learning experience,” Finley said.
Presley was fouled with 1:18 left and converted both free throws to push the lead back to six points, but a missed foul shot by Dalton Geppert with 50 seconds on the clock led to a rebound and baseline layup by Philpot, cutting the lead to 56-53.
White was fouled on the subsequent Ninilchik possession, but missed both shots from the charity stripe with 29 ticks left. Collier was fouled on his drive to the basket on the next play and sunk both foul shots to narrow the gap to 56-55, capping a 23-5 run by Seldovia.
With 13 seconds to play, Pat Brandt was fouled and stepped up to foul line. Brandt missed the first attempt but hit the second to widen the lead to two points.
“Pat’s not our best free-throw shooter but he hit a big one there,” Finley admitted.
In the final 13 seconds, Seldovia saw its first shooting attempt go awry and nearly cross the center line, and the desperation trey by Philpot missed low at the buzzer.
Ultimately, the victory was one to savor by Ninilchik.
“This is awesome,” Presley said. “It’s a huge deal, and it’s the first time we’ve gone undefeated in the conference.”
Presley said winning the title breathed a sense of relief into the Wolverines with Saturday’s second-place game action still to be played as of Friday night.
“That’s what we wanted,” he said. “We wanted to sit back and watch the rest of the games.”
Nikolaevsk boys 61, Seldovia 46
Felemon Molodih had a huge game for the Warriors, with 23 points on 60 percent shooting, plus seven rebounds and four steals.
Neil Gordeev added 13 points for Nikolaevsk. For Seldovia, Calem Collier had 23 points and Aidan Philpot added 15.
Nikolaevsk boys 54, Wasilla Lake 47
The Warriors moved into the second-place game with a win over the Rams.
Jonah Fefelov hit seven 3-pointers on the way to 22 points, while Nikit Fefelov added 12. For Wasilla Lake, Vinny Huber had 20 and Brody Neufeld added 16.
Nikolaevsk boys 65, Birchwood Christian 21
The Warriors moved into the second-place semifinals with a big victory over the Eagles on Friday.
Nikolaevsk will play Wasilla Lake Christian at noon today for a spot in the second-place game. The winner of that game plays Seldovia for second place and the conference’s final state berth at 4 p.m.
The Warriors stayed fresh by jumping to a 14-3 lead after one and 42-8 lead at halftime. Felemon Molodih and Jonah Fefelov each had 14, while Neil Gordeev and Anfim Kalugin each had 10. For Birchwood Christian, Collin Becker had 10.
Wasilla Lake 60, Lumen Christi 17
The Rams rolled past the Archangels on Friday into the second-place semifinals.
Jordan Auldridge had 16 points for Wasilla Lake, while Brandon Stiner had 14 and Vinny Huber added 10. For Lumen, Joey Brown had nine.