The Homer girls had to do it the hard way, but they ultimately earned what they wanted.
The Mariners survived a scare in Friday’s semifinal contest at the Southcentral Conference tournament to claim a dramatic 32-29 victory over the stubborn Houston Hawks at Grace Christian High School.
With a state tournament spot effectively wrapped up due to their state-leading Winning Percentage Index among 3A girls teams, the Mariners did not necessarily have to beat Houston, but the win was nevertheless important to keep the momentum rolling.
“It was definitely tense at the end,” said Homer senior Madison Akers, who embraced her teammates in an emotional hug after the final buzzer. “We’ve come so far from the beginning of the season, and we wanted to keep it going. We’re all one big family.”
Akers led Homer with 13 points, and capped her day with the go-ahead layup with 46 seconds left, which put the Mariners up 30-29 at the time. Once they were in the lead again, the Mariners forced two crucial turnovers in the final 24 seconds to seal the win.
“This was good for us,” said a relieved Homer coach Chad Felice. “I told them in the last huddle there that this is what we do, it starts on defense.”
The win was the 18th straight for Homer, which hasn’t lost since mid-January and will face host team Grace Christian in Saturday’s championship tilt at 5:15 p.m. The Grizzlies beat ACS in Friday’s other semifinal 45-30.
Against Grace this year, Homer recorded a 46-35 win at home and a narrow 35-34 win on the road.
Kimberly Quincy led Houston by hitting 7-of-10 from the foul line and finishing with 13 points. Overall, the Hawks converted 9 of 16 from the free-throw line, and went 5 for 6 in the fourth quarter.
“Houston’s a really physical team, and the mentality for us was to get back on defense as soon as we could,” Akers said. “Beating a team three times is hard, and we saw it.”
Although they were ranked as the No. 5 seed, the Hawks were looked at by rival teams as a challenging matchup, and Houston coach Colton Conner said Thursday’s quarterfinal win over Nikiski and Friday’s test against Homer proved their mettle.
“We went in with a game plan to keep the score as low as possible, contain Madison at the post and (Kayla) Stafford at the perimeter, and the girls played their hearts out doing that,” Conner said. “Defensively, we played our best game.”
Early on, shots were falling for Homer. Aurora Waclawski knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to help the Mariners stake out a 13-2 lead after six minutes were up. Stafford opened the scoring with a triple of her own for Homer, and the defense forced Houston into three early turnovers as well.
However, the Hawks showed off their long range game as well, with triples from Makayla Moore and Kaila Wilkerson, which closed Houston’s deficit to 13-8 by the end of the quarter. Moore buried another trey early in the second frame to knock the lead down to two points.
Homer led 19-15 at the halftime break, but Houston put up a charge in the third quarter with gritty defensive play that frustrated Homer, leaving the Mariners with a scant five points in the frame. A corner triple by Aspen Ruth with 3:30 to play in the quarter gave Houston its first lead of the day at 22-21. A late bucket by Waclawski put Homer back on top 24-22 by the end of the period.
As the teams headed into the fourth quarter, Homer began rebounding better, but the Hawks took the lead again with 1:47 to play on a jump shot by Wilkerson. Just 17 seconds later, Akers grabbed the lead back with a jumper from the free-throw line, putting Homer up 28-27.
After a Houston turnover, an empty possession by Homer ended in a traveling call on Akers, and a crosscourt inbounds pass by Houston resulted in another Homer foul, putting Quincy on the charity stripe.
Quincy hit both shots to give Houston a 29-28 lead, but it didn’t last long. The Mariners had the ball knocked out of bounds on the next possession, and on the ensuing inbounds pass, Akers collected the ball and laid it in for the 30-29 lead.
From there, the Mariners worked hard in pressing the Hawks, which helped force a Houston turnover with 24 seconds left. The sequence forced Houston to start fouling, and Waclawski helped build the lead to three points on a pair of clutch free throws with 16 ticks on the board.
“Aurora has ice in her veins,” Felice said. “It doesn’t affect her, she just knocks them down.”
From there, the Mariners held strong to clinch the win after a full-court shot by Houston bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
“This was a good win for us,” Felice said. “Last week’s (44-38) win over ACS was good, but this one was big to put us in state.”
Akers said with the Mariners’ second consecutive state berth locked up for certain, she plans on heading to the big dance with her teammates with one goal in mind.
“I want to end my high school career with three wins,” she said.
Grace Christian boys 67, Nikiski 43
The Grizzlies punched their ticket to state and advanced to Saturday’s Southcentral Conference championship game with a convincing win Friday over the Bulldogs.
Although an automatic bid to the 3A state tournament went up in smoke for Nikiski, the possibility of grabbing an at-large bid via the WPI still exists.
Barrow, Grace, ACS, Sitka and Delta Junction all picked up automatic state spots with their region tournament results, which leaves Monroe Catholic and Nikiski in a battle for the sole WPI bid. As of Wednesday, Monroe held the second-best WPI spot, while Nikiski was seventh, but if Monroe should beat Galena in Saturday’s second-place game at the Aurora Conference tournament, then the Rams will get an automatic bid, leaving Nikiski next in line for a WPI spot according to rankings released before the conference tournaments.
But WPI takes into account conference tourney games. With so many moving parts across the state, the Bulldogs can greatly help themselves by winning both Saturday games at the Southcentral Conference tourney.
“There’s still a chance with the WPI,” said Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad. “It’s not something we talked about, but it’s possible.”
Nikiski starts Saturday with a 10:45 a.m. matchup with Houston, a team that split with the Bulldogs this year. Nikiski beat Houston 69-35 at home but lost on the road a week ago 61-58. If they win that game, a third-place contest awaits them against the winner of Homer and Seward. The Bulldogs swept both teams this year, although Seward presented a more formidable challenge.
Friday night, Nikiski suffered from turnovers.
“You can’t beat a team like that with turnovers,” Kornstad said. “I don’t know why we did that.”
Nikiski senior Luke Johnson led the Bulldogs with 17 points, while Nathan Carstens chipped in eight. On defense, Carstens held one of Grace’s top players — Tobin Karlberg — in check for most of the night. Karlberg managed just 11 points for the Grizzlies.
However, it was Grace’s other big gun, Trevor Osborne, that got away from the Bulldogs. Osborne pumped in 17 points to lead Grace, and teammate Brogan Nieder scored 11 in the second quarter to finish with 17.
“(Karlberg and Osborne) are two of the best players in our region, and they hurt us tonight,” Kornstad said.
Hunter Holloway, one of Nikiski’s top scorers, was held to two points, both on free throws.
Grace coach Jason Boerger pointed to the team’s role players as the difference in the game, adding that sophomore center Jimmy McGovern and perimeter specialist Nieder gave the Grizzlies a shot in the arm when Osborne was on the bench.
“Our role guys kept us going, and we wanted to keep them in to control the tempo,” Boerger said. “Trevor always shoots well, but he also rebounded and defended well today.”
A 9-0 start to the game by Grace was nearly wiped out with three straight scoring possessions by Nikiski late in the first quarter. Two of those buckets came courtesy of Luke Johnson, whose driving layup with 1:18 left in the frame earned him a free throw as well, which he hit to close Grace’s lead to 9-7.
However, Grace opened the second quarter on an 11-0 run, starting with Nieder’s trey and ending with McGovern’s second-chance layup with 4:26 to go in the first half.
Grace outscored Nikiski 21-6 in the second quarter, and in the final two minutes, Grace managed to distance itself with three straight buckets on rebounding and Nikiski turnovers. Nieder laid in two transition buckets to give the Grizzlies a 28-11 lead over Nikiski, and a midrange jumper from Noah Shamburger in the final seconds of the half gave Grace a 30-13 lead.
Grace outscored Nikiski 19-14 in the third quarter to stake out a 49-27 lead. In the fourth quarter, the dagger shot came courtesy of Osborne, who nailed a 3-pointer with 4:12 to play that gave Grace a 25-point lead.
ACS boys 76, Seward 46
An early attempt of slowing the pace against the high-energy Lions worked only so long for Seward.
ACS overpowered Seward in Friday’s semifinal round to advance to the tournament championship and punch its ticket to state.
The Lions showered the Seahawks with 12 3-pointers en route to the win, led by five from Orlando Lozano, who finished with 15 points. Trey Huckabay hit three 3s to end up with 15 points and Danilo Guzman scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half for ACS.
“They tried to slow us down early, but we just worked hard to play our team defense,” said ACS coach Zack Madren. “We stuck to the game plan, and it was tough because Ronnie (Jackson) is a good shooter.”
Ronnie Jackson was Seward’s leading scorer, pouring in four triples for a game-high 16 points. The Seahawks will attempt to play for third place beginning with a matchup against Homer Saturday at 10:45 a.m. Seward swept Homer this season with wins of 83-49 and 63-60 at home and 60-52 on the road.
Seward coach Al Plan said once ACS began pouring on the triples, the Seahawks were forced to adjust.
“We were banking on making them beat us outside early, but we had to kind of change our plan because they were shooting so well,” Plan said. “Then we were struggling to get rebounds and there wasn’t many second-chance opportunities for us.”
With four players standing above 6-foot-4 — topped out by 6-7 sophomore Chester Makoi — ACS featured plenty of height over Seward’s smaller guards and thus won the rebounding battle on many occasions. To make matters worse, the Lions’ attack from beyond the arc was keeping Seward’s comeback attempts at bay.
“We were packing it inside to get looks, but when you got to make a choice on what to give up defensively, it’s very tough,” Plan said. “Against a team this athletic, we had to change our strategy.”
Lozano pumped in three 3s in a span of 2:07 late in the first quarter to give ACS a 14-10 lead, but Jackson kept things interesting with a pair of treys of his own, helping Seward to stay close. ACS led 17-13 after one quarter.
However, three more shots from beyond the arc in the first 2:45 of the second quarter quickly pushed the lead out to 26-13 for ACS. Another shot by Lozano from the corner put the Lions up 33-18, and a bucket by Guzman on a nifty assist from Jason Cho extended the lead to 39-18 with 1:26 to play in the first half. The Lions led 39-22 at the break after outscoring Seward 22-9 in the second quarter.
Jackson knocked down a pair of 3s midway through the third quarter to give Seward a fighting chance, helping to close the lead to 45-32, but Lozano fired back with 3:02 left in the frame. A corner shot from Huckabay resulted in a 51-34 advantage for ACS, and the Lions led 56-38 by the end of the quarter.
A trio of baskets by the Lions in the early minutes of the fourth quarter helped ice the game up.
“I’m proud of this team, these guys constantly gave a great effort this year,” Plan said. “They’re a fun group to be around.”
Mariners 32, Hawks 29
Houston 8 7 7 7 —29
Homer 13 6 5 8 —32
HOUSTON (29) — Thomas 0 0-2 0, Ruth 1 0-0 3, Moore 2 0-2 6, Wilkerson 2 2-2 7, Quincy 3 7-10 13, Moore 0 0-0 0. Totals 8 9-16 29.
HOMER (32) — Todd 0 0-0 0, Reutov 2 0-0 4, Knott 0 0-0 0, Draves 0 0-0 0, Akers 6 1-3 13, Cole 0 0-0 0, Waclawski 3 2-2 10, Stafford 1 2-4 5. Totals 12 5-9 32.
3-point goals — Houston 4 (Moore 2, Ruth 1, Wilkerson 1); Homer 3 (Waclawski 2, Stafford 1). Team fouls — Houston 12; Homer 14. Fouled out — none.
Grizzlies 67, Bulldogs 43
Nikiski 7 6 14 16 —43
Grace 9 21 19 18 —67
NIKISKI (43) — I. Johnson 0 0-4 0, Anderson 2 0-0 4, L. Johnson 6-7 17, Kornstad 1 0-0 2, Holloway 0 2-2 2, Tauriainen 2 0-0 6, Carstens 3 0-0 8, Pamplin 2 0-0 4. Totals 15 8-13 43.
GRACE (67) — Salima 0 0-0 0, Osborne 6 2-2 17, Shamburger 3 0-0 6, Wood 0 2-2 2, McGovern 3 0-0 7, Nieder 8 0-0 17, Nieder 0 0-0 0, Sheldon 0 0-0 0, Karlberg 5 1-1 11, Sheldon 3 1-1 7. Totals 28 6-6 67.
3-point goals — Nikiski 5 (Tauriainen 2, Carstens 2, L. Johnson 1); Grace 5 (Osborne 3, McGovern 1, Nieder 1). Team fouls — Nikiski 12; Grace 12. Fouled out — none.
Lions 76, Seahawks 46
Seward 13 9 16 8 —46
ACS 17 22 17 20 —76
SEWARD (46) — Berry 0 0-0 0, Hauze 0 0-0 0, Estes 0 0-0 0, Zweifel 0 3-4 3, Kratz 2 0-0 4, Brewi 3 0-0 7, Jacobson 0 0-0 0, Seiverts 4 0-0 8, Pahno 3 0-0 6, Nillson 0 0-0 0, Jackson 6 0-0 16, Petrosius 1 0-0 2. Totals 19 3-4 46.
ACS (76) — Gatkouth 3 0-0 8, Huckabay 5 2-3 15, Cha 0 0-0 0, Cho 0 0-0 0, Bronson 4 0-2 8, Guzman 7 0-1 15, Dickerson 2 0-0 5, Onochie 3 0-0 6, Lozano 5 0-0 15, Makoi 2 0-0 4. Totals 31 2-6 76.