It had been 25 years since the Homer Mariners had a girls basketball team appear in a state championship game, and a semifinal win Friday changed that.
As for the state crown itself, well, that’ll have to wait another year.
The Homer girls fell 49-26 to the Barrow Whalers in a matchup of the top two seeds in the Class 3A girls state final Saturday at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Eight hundred seventeen miles separate the two very different communities, a distance that was analogous of the Whalers’ advantage on the glass. Barrow outrebounded Homer 41-27.
“We forced some stuff, and it just wasn’t our day,” said Homer head coach Chad Felice. “We just didn’t have it.”
Barrow staked out an early lead, but Homer turned up its pace to stay within striking distance of the Whalers throughout the second and third quarters, never trailing by more than 12 points until the fourth quarter.
The key moment of the game occurred with 6 minutes, 50 seconds, remaining in the final period, when 3A Girls Player of the Year Madison Akers stumbled to the floor while wrestling for the ball with Barrow’s Milya Wright and was charged with her fifth and final foul, forcing her to the bench the rest of the way.
“She rebounds well for us, so it hurt us on the glass,” Felice said.
After Akers made her exit, Barrow outscored Homer 13-2 to clinch the title.
The Homer senior ended with five points on 2-for-9 shooting and four rebounds.
Fellow senior Aurora Waclawski finished with 16 points, eight boards and three steals to lead the Mariners. Waclawski said she felt the team was caught off guard by Barrow’s midrange game, which the Mariners aren’t as accustomed to defending as they are layups and 3-pointers.
“They were shooting a pretty high percentage of jumpers,” Waclawski said. “We weren’t ready.”
Barrow head coach Chad Bunselmeier — in just his first year with Barrow — credited Homer’s scrappy defense in keeping the Whalers honest.
“Homer just never gives up, they work hard,” Bunselmeier said. “Their (man-to-man) defense was aggressive.”
However, as hard as the Mariners defense pushed Barrow, the ball was ice cold on the other side of the court. Homer shot a lowly 15 percent from the floor and converted just four field goals in each half. From beyond the arc, the Mariners went 2 for 19.
The Whalers ended up shooting 52 percent in the second half.
“We just had an off day in our shooting, I mean, I got some open looks from 3, and didn’t hit,” Waclawski said. “I think it was the same thing with Kayla (Stafford).”
For Stafford, it was the second championship defeat of her five-year prep career, adding to the triple overtime loss to Cook Inlet Academy she experienced as a freshman with the Nikolaevsk girls in 2013.
Stafford and Waclawski were both named to the 3A girls state All-Tournament team.
A victory over Barrow would have continued a big year for the small fishing town at the end of the Homer Spit, as it would’ve added to the Class 1-2-3A state cross-country and wrestling crowns the Mariners won. Waclawski was also a part of that cross-country championship team, as was Mariners bench player Haley Knott.
The Whalers entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed with an 18-4 record, and showed their superiority early on by frustrating the Mariners with nine turnovers in the first quarter.
Barrow also controlled the glass, seemingly getting three or four shots off for every Mariners attempt. Of Barrow’s 41 total boards, 28 were on the defensive glass.
Down 17-6, Homer managed to regain its balance and finished the first half on a 9-4 run. Waclawski buried the corner 3 in the waning seconds to give Homer some much-needed momentum leading into the half, at which point they trailed 21-15.
Heading into the second half, Felice knew his team needed to keep the surge going.
“I told them to keep running, rebound and be smart,” Felice said. “We were forcing stuff early on.”
However, three quick buckets by Barrow in the opening 69 seconds of the third quarter was not what the Mariners planned.
A triple shot from the top of the arc by Akers with 5:40 to play in the third cut the lead to 29-20, but it would be the last time Barrow’s lead was in single digits.
With senior guard Angel Telfair and post player Rose Mongoyak working inside to get open space, Barrow began to increase the lead.
When Akers was slapped with her fifth foul, the remaining air in the balloon went out for Homer.
“I don’t really feel a lot of emotion during games, but it’s nice having Madison there,” Waclawski said about Akers’ ability. “It was tough without her getting rebounds against (Mongoyak).”
Homer starter Uliana Reutov also fouled out with four minutes left, further decimating the Mariner’s rebounding ability.
Mongoyak finished with 12 points on 5-for-10 shooting, while Kuutuuq Danner led Barrow with 13 points and 11 boards.
Homer finished the season at 24-3 overall. The campaign included an 18-game win streak, which was broken in the Southcentral Conference tournament final against Grace Christian, and Felice pointed to the win streak as one of the highlights of a great year.
“We won 24 games, and nobody can take that from us,” Felice said.
“I love basketball more than I love to win,” added Waclawski. “I’m still happy this year. It was pretty magical.”
Whalers 49, Mariners 26
Barrow 12 9 14 14 —49
Homer 4 11 9 2 —26
BARROW (49) — Wolgemuth 2 0-2 4, Danner 3 7-8 13, C. Mongoyak 0 0-0 0, Telfair 2 1-4 3, Nicely 1 0-1 2, Gerke 0 0-0 0, R. Mongoyak 5 2-4 12, Wright 1 1-3 3, Ahgeak 0 2-2 2, Tulai 3 2-4 8, S. Wolgemuth 0 0-0 0, Tula’l 1 0-0 2. Totals 17 15-28 49.
HOMER (26) — Todd 0 0-0 0, Reutov 0 0-0 0, Cleary 0 1-2 1, Kuhns 0 0-0 0, Draves 1 0-0 2, Akers 2 0-2 5, Cole 1 0-0 2, Waclawski 4 7-8 16, Stafford 0 0-0 0, Kann 0 0-0 0, Box 0 0-0 0, Parish 0 0-0 0. Totals 8 8-12 26.
3-point goals — Barrow 0; Homer 2 (Akers, Waclawski).