Friday’s semifinal at the Class 1A March Madness boys state tournament featured teams of stark contrast. On one end of the court stood the Anaktuvuk Pass Huskies, who feature no player taller than 5-foot-11. On the other end, the Ninilchik Wolverines, who have three players above 6 feet and are topped out by 6-8 junior Austin White.
Despite the mismatch, top-seeded Ninilchik had to sweat out a wild contest to claim a 47-43 win and earn a spot in Saturday’s championship final. It is the first state title game appearance for the Ninilchik boys since 2002.
The game had Ninilchik head coach Nick Finley feeling like his Wolverines were playing in the NCAA national bracket, and they were a No. 1 seed.
“Because we’re the top seed, everyone wants to see us lose, and you could hear it from the crowd,” Finley said. “Everyone likes an upset.”
The win set up an all-Kenai Peninsula final, as the Wolverines meet a familiar foe in conference rivals Nikolaevsk, 59-37 winners Friday over Noatak.
The last time the state basketball championship featured two Peninsula teams was 2002, when the Cook Inlet Academy boys edged Ninilchik 43-40 in double overtime. The Peninsula Conference is also guaranteed to have two straight state champions, after the Seldovia boys won it all last year.
Anatuvuk Pass used hot 3-point shooting and gritty defense to put Ninilchik in an early hole, which left the Wolverines in the unusual position of having to desperately claw back in the fourth quarter after trailing by double digits.
Tyler Presley drained a crucial triple from the corner with 2 minutes, 31 seconds, left to play to tie the game at 43 apiece, and Dalton Geppert drained two big free throws with 16.5 seconds to go that put Ninilchik up by three.
The final Wolves possession saw Jacob Ahgook drive up the baseline for a layup, but the shot missed and was rebounded by Ninilchik to clinch it.
“It’s a dream come true,” Presley said.
Presley finished with seven points and six steals, while Geppert scored a game-high 14 points and six boards and ended up 5 for 9 from the foul line.
“When I shot my first two (early in the game), I missed both, which was tough,” Geppert said. “But I just stared at the rim, focused and hit them.
“I think about all the thousands of free throws I’ve shot, and these were no different.”
Matthew Bartolowits had a big game with 10 points on 3-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc, while White ended with 10 points and 11 boards, giving the big man 53 rebounds in three games.
In the first half, it appeared as if White never touched the ball. The smaller guards of Anaktuvuk Pass kept a steady watch on White and clogged up the paint to take away his height advantage.
“Austin was going to be moved out (of the middle), and we had to change things up,” Finley said. “It was a huge adjustment.”
By halftime, White had just two points on three shot attempts from the field, which left the Wolverines feeling off their game.
“It was a weird atmosphere,” Presley said. “(Anaktuvuk Pass) was a weird team to play.”
The two teams went to the locker rooms tied at 22, but the Wolves were the ones to surge in the second half, raining 3s down on the Wolverines. Justice Nukapigak and Dyrell Lincoln gave Ninilchik the most trouble with six treys between the two of them. Nukapigak finished with 13 points to lead Anaktuvuk Pass and Lincoln had 11 on 3-for-4 shooting from beyond the arc.
“They did a great job of dictating the tempo, and we dug ourselves a hole,” Finley said.
Superior offensive rebounding also kept Anaktuvuk Pass in the lead. The extra opportunities were evident, as the Wolves attempted 35 field goals in the second half, compared to just 16 by Ninilchik.
After consecutive triples by Nukapigak and Tunnana Ahgook left the Wolves with a 38-28 lead, things looked bleak for Ninilchik.
The Wolverines were forced to adjust on defense, and at times left the key wide open, opting instead to crowd the perimeter. The strategy eventually began to work.
“In the locker room, I wrote, ‘Play our game,’ on the board,” Finley said. “The kids dug deep.”
Geppert hit two straight jump shots to help reel the Wolves in, and a baseline layup by Presley with 5:36 left in the game cut the lead to 41-36.
White was fouled on the next possession and hit both free throws to force a one-possession game. White scored on a crosscourt assist by Presley with 4:24 remaining to cut the gap to 41-40.
After a layup by Nukapigak, Presley was ready to work his magic from the corner pocket.
“Honestly, I thought it was off,” Presley said about his game-tying triple. “It left my hand and I thought, ‘Oh no.’”
Bartolowits was fouled with 1:50 to play, giving him the opportunity to take the lead for Ninilchik. The junior guard hit his first shot to do so, but missed the second.
With under a minute to go, both Pat Brandt and Presley missed a pair of free throws, keeping Anaktuvuk Pass in the game. Ultimately, after a few races up and down the court, Geppert was the one to be fouled, and converted both to give Ninilchik a 46-43 lead and breathe a sigh of relief into the Wolverines. A technical called on an Anaktuvuk Pass play put Geppert at the line to hit a free throw and seal the win with 1.2 on the clock.
Nikolaevsk boys 59, Noatak 37
The Warriors had an answer for everything the Noatak Lynx threw at them in Friday’s other semifinal, cruising to the victory to claim their spot in the state championship game against Ninilchik.
The appearance marks the first time in school history the Nikolaevsk boys will play in the state final. The Warriors girls played in the 1A state final in 2013, losing a 43-39 triple overtime thriller to CIA.
“We’re honored to be here,” said Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich. “This game really made me appreciate the hard work put in by the boys.”
Being a state semifinal matchup, the Warriors knew it was going to be their toughest battle yet. After seeing Ninilchik barely scrape through the day’s first semifinal, the Warriors entered their contest determined to make it as easy as possible.
Neil Gordeev made sure of that by hitting a pair of 3s in the first quarter to give Nikolaevsk a 14-4 lead. Gordeev had 10 points in the first eight minutes, and 13 by the half.
“Their guard (Michael Norton) was a big threat in the key, and we knew if we can get him out, it would leave our guards to come in and crash the boards and make layups,” Gordeev said. “Even though I’m a post, I like to shoot, and I knew I had to come out on fire to make him respect me and guard me.”
Gordeev finished with a game-high 19 points on 8-for-10 shooting and six rebounds. Jonah Fefelov added 12 points and dished out five assists, and converted 5 of 8 from the free-throw line.
After an opening few minutes of scoreless play, Nikolaevsk knocked down consecutive triples from Nikit Fefelov and Gordeev to open a 6-0 lead, and another trey from Gordeev at the top of arc pushed the lead to 12-4 late in the first quarter.
Peter Stalker-Norton drilled a 3 to start the second quarter for Noatak, but Gordeev answered immediately with long shot of his own. Nikit Fefelov added another triple to push the lead to 20-9 by the midpoint of the quarter.
“We didn’t know what they were about, but we were stronger and we pushed through it,” Gordeev said. “We wanted to make sure each quarter we were pushing at 100 percent.”
Nikolaevsk led 26-14 by halftime, and proceeded to outscore Noatak 20-10 in the third quarter, which was capped by a wild floater to the rim by Kalenik Molodih at the buzzer.
Wolverines 47, Wolves 43
Ninilchik 12 10 8 17 —47
Anaktuvuk Pass 12 10 16 5 —43
NINILCHIK (47) — Presley 2 2-4 7, Koch 0 0-0 0, Geppert 4 5-9 14, Brandt 2 2-11 6, Bartolowits 3 1-2 10, Mumey 0 0-0 0, White 4 2-2 10. Totals 15 12-28 47.
ANAKTUVUK PASS (43) — Hugo 0 0-0 0, Ahgook 2 0-0 5, Ahgook 4 1-2 10, Lincoln 4 0-0 11, Nukapigak 5 0-0 13, Ahgook 0 0-0 0, Nay 2 0-0 4. Totals 17 1-2 43.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 5 (Bartolowits 3, Presley 1, Geppert 1); Anaktuvuk Pass 8 (Lincoln 3, Nukapigak 3, Ahgook 1, Ahgook 1). Team fouls — Ninilchik 8; Anaktuvuk Pass 17. Fouled out — Ahgook.
Warriors 59, Lynx 37
Nikolaevsk 14 12 20 13 —59
Noatak 4 10 10 13 —37
NIKOLAEVSK (59) — Boquecosa 0 0-0 0, K. Molodih 3 0-0 6, Jones 0 0-0 0, G. Trail 0 0-0 0, Whaley 0 0-0 0, Yakunin 0 0-0 0, N. Fefelov 4 1-2 11, Gordeev 8 0-0 19, F. Molodih 2 2-2 6, J. Fefelov 3 5-8 12, M. Trail 1 0-0 3, Kalugin 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 8-14 59.
NOATAK (37) — Sheldon 1 0-0 2, Stalker 1 0-0 2, Onalik 1 0-0 2, Van Amburg 0 0-0 0, Norton 1 0-0 2, Onalik 1 0-0 2, Adams 3 0-0 6, Walton 0 1-2 1, Sherman 2 2-2 7, Norton 0 2-2 2, Stalker-Norton 5 0-0 11, Mills 0 0-0 0. Totals 15 5-6 37.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 7 (Gordeev 3, N. Fefelov 2, J. Fefelov 1, M. Trail 1). Team fouls — Nikolaevsk 10; Noatak 15. Fouled out — none.