With their tournament, season and high school career on the line, Nikiski seniors Chena Litzen and Rachel Thompson both had to come up with something to play one more game at the Class 3A state basketball tournament.
Friday afternoon at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, Litzen and Thompson combined to score more points than the entire Bethel girls team in a 37-22 consolation win, each netting 13 to give the Bulldogs one more day of the tournament. Nikiski will battle ACS Saturday at 9 a.m. for fourth-place honors.
“Since this was our last game, we didn’t want to have any regrets about it,” Litzen said after the game.
Litzen shot 6 for 11 from the field and grabbed six rebounds, while Thompson brought down seven boards as well.
“Last year when we came to state, we didn’t play the way we wanted to,” Litzen explained. “We kind of had an attitude like, we got punched in the mouth so let’s punch back.
“It’s a big deal for me. I don’t plan on playing college ball so I didn’t want this to be my last game.”
Courtney Williams led Bethel with six points on 4-for-5 shooting from the free throw line. The Warriors shot a meager 20 percent from the field, and also suffered from 3-point land, hitting 1 of 12.
With Nikiski trailing 7-6 after a defensive first quarter, Litzen scored seven of Nikiski’s nine second-quarter points to give the Bulldogs a healthy lead, which they never lost. Litzen said Saturday’s final clash will be an all-out affair, as the Bulldogs have nothing to lose.
“I’m gonna go out and play as hard as I can, like I did today,” she said. “Me and Rachel both, we just want to make it a tournament to remember.”
It was also Nikiski’s first state tournament victory in six years, the last coming in 2009 when Ward Romans still coached the Bulldogs. Last year, after making it to state for the first time since Romans left, Nikiski suffered two losses to make an early exit. This year, current Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said he was pleased to get that monkey off his back.
“It’s been a while, so it felt good to come out today and play well,” Anderson said. “We made some big shots in the second half, and the girls kept at it.”
In a first half that was dominated by stealthy defense, Nikiski and Bethel combined to shoot 9 for 40 from the floor (22 percent). The Bulldogs even held the Warriors scoreless in the second quarter to grab a 15-7 lead at halftime.
“Typically in tournament games like this, it comes down to shooting,” Anderson said. “Our goal was to come out and limit their opportunities to shoot 3s, and I feel like we were successful at that.”
Anderson also praised the defensive play of Brittany Perry, who stepped up with five steals. Overall, Nikiski grabbed 14 steals to Bethel’s four.
But it was the hot hands of Litzen that provided the Bulldogs with a comfortable lead. In the final 2:42 of the first half, Litzen scored seven straight points, attacking the rim with efficiency and aggression.
In the second half, Nikiski kept the pressure on Bethel, as the Warriors suffered through a stretch of 13 minutes and 8 seconds of scoreless play, thanks to the Nikiski defense.
“That’s happened several times this year, where our girls just dig in,” Anderson said. “We’re not very big, but we’re very quick and we’re willing to work as hard as we can to make something work.
In the fourth quarter, Thompson hit consecutive buckets to push Nikiski’s lead to 28-11, allowing the Bulldogs to cruise home from there.
ACS girls 34, Homer 23
In less than two weeks, the Homer girls went from region champions to an early exit from the 3A state tournament, losing to the Anchorage Christian School Lions in a consolation bracket game Friday at the Sullivan Arena.
First-year Homer coach Chad Felice summed up the team’s emotions after the game with a few simple words.
“It sucks, I wish I could send the seniors off with one more game at state,” Felice said.
But with a senior class consisting of two — Larson Fellows and Shelby Alexander — Felice added that next year is looking like another competitive campaign with most of the starters expected to return.
“We have a lot of girls that do fishing,” Felice said. “Some go out and do basketball camps, and some are multi-sport athletes. But these girls are dedicated, so we’ll be there.
Felice added some positivity in saying it doesn’t take away from what the squad managed to achieve over the 2014-15 season, including a strong season-ending kick that was capped with a Southcentral Conference tournament championship on the Mariners’ home court.
“To come out and win ten of our last twelve games of the season, that was big,” Felice said. “That’s what these kids will leave with this year. You only get a chance to host regions every six or seven years, so that was big.”
The Mariners had their hands full Friday with ACS senior guard Raven Thibodeaux, who scored 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Fellows led Homer with nine points and five rebounds, and junior Madison Akers added eight points and nine boards.
The contest started slow for Homer, as the Mariners struggled with 13 percent shooting and two made field goals in the first half, which left them trailing the Lions 22-6 at halftime.
But whatever Felice said to the team in the locker room at halftime must have worked. Homer returned to the court and proceeded to outscore ACS 13-3 to cut the gap to 25-19 with 38 seconds left in the third quarter.
“I just told them we need to come back out with heart and with that fight we have,” Felice said. “We came out and responded, and that’s all I can ask for.”
The Mariners managed to find the ball better than the Lions did during the run, as Homer out-hustled ACS for loose balls and turnovers. Homer scored nine points off turnovers in the second half compared to three for ACS, and grabbed seven steals as well, led by Akers with five.
Fellows notched a outback layup midway through the third period that was quickly followed by a steal and breakaway layup by Akers, a play which junior Aurora Waclawski repeated on the next Homer possession. It allowed Homer to cut the lead to six points.
“I think that proves to people that this team doesn’t quit,” Felice said.
However, ACS began to get back to doing what worked in the first half, which was crashing the boards and keeping the Mariners from the ball. Thibodeaux proved to be especially frustrating, as she scored five points in a 9-2 run that helped build up the ACS lead back to 34-21 with 1:54 to play in the fourth quarter.
Felice put on a bow on the season by adding that if the Mariners wish to return to the big dance, they will need to put in time and effort over the offseason. But, he said, there’s no need to worry about that with the current crop of players.
“I knew we had something special,” he said. “The fact that they bought in so quick, with a new coach from five thousand miles away … it’s incredible.”
Bulldogs 37, Warriors 22
Nikiski 6 9 9 13 —37
Bethel 7 0 3 12 —22
NIKISKI (37) — Perry 0 0-0 0, Riddall 1 0-0 2, Vollertsen 0 0-0 0, Pitt 1 1-2 3, Litke 1 0-0 3, Kornstad 1 0-0 3, Thompson 6 0-3 13, Epperheimer 0 0-0 0, Litzen 6 1-5 13. Totals 16 2-10 37.
BETHEL (22) — Poe 0 0-0 0, Boney 0 0-0 0, Williams 1 4-5 6, Crow 0 0-2 0, O’Brien 1 0-0 2, Brink 2 0-0 4, K. Crow 2 0-0 5, S. Crow 1 0-0 2, Kessner-Kinegak 0 1-2 1, Naneng 1 0-0 2. Totals 8 5-9 22.
3-point goals — Nikiski 3 (Litke 1, Kornstad 1, Thompson 1); Bethel 1 (K. Crow). Fouled out — none.
Lions 34, Mariners 23
ACS 7 15 5 7 —34
Homer 3 3 13 4 —23
ACS (34) — Bowden 1 2-6 5, Tebbits 0 0-2 0, Sutter 0 0-0 0, O’Hara 0 0-0 0, Land 0 1-2 1, Williams 2 3-4 9, Carr 2 0-0 4, Thibodeaux 6 1-2 15. Totals 11 7-16 34.
HOMER (23) — Reutov 0 0-0 0, Alexander 0 0-0 0, Clark 0 1-2 1, Jacobsen 0 0-0 0, Akers 4 0-2 8, Fellows 4 1-3 9, Waclawski 1 0-0 2, Stafford 1 0-0 3, Knott 0 0-0 0, Kann 0 0-0 0, Cole 0 0-0 0. Totals 10 2-7 23.
3-point goals — ACS 5 (Williams 2, Thibodeaux 2, Bowden 1); Homer 1 (Stafford). Fouled out — none.