The Homer girls were able to breathe a sigh of relief Thursday at the Alaska Airlines Center following a 45-42 quarterfinal victory over conference rivals Grace Christian on the opening day of the Class 3A March Madness state tournament.
The win advanced the Mariners into Friday’s semifinal round with a 5:15 p.m. matchup against Mt. Edgecumbe, but it also avenged a narrow loss to Grace in the Southcentral Conference tournament championship March 12.
“(The region championship loss) was good, I think, it kind of woke us up,” said Homer senior Kayla Stafford.
Stafford used deadly shooting to hit 3 of 5 shots from 3-point land Thursday to score 13 points, while senior teammate Aurora Waclawski’s aggressive attacking gave her a game-high 14 points and seven rebounds. Class 3A Player of the Year Madison Akers chipped in 10 points and five boards.
Homer coach Chad Felice said the win was a big hurdle cleared for the Mariners, who failed to win in two games at state one year ago.
“This was a huge monkey off our back,” Felice said. “We got to the next round.”
Felice praised the dominance of junior Uliana Reutov on the glass in the late going. Reutov brought down seven rebounds, five of which she snagged in the fourth quarter.
“Uliana was the difference for us in the fourth quarter,” Felice said. “We did not rebound that well in the third, but she was working it in the fourth.”
Thursday was the fourth meeting between the two teams this season. Homer swept the two regular season games, but Grace got the better of Homer in the Southcentral Conference tournament clash 41-38.
Against the Ward Romans-led Grizzlies, a defensive battle was expected between the familiar foes. But it was the offensive game of Grace that was working early on.
“That was unexpected, they shot extremely well,” Felice said.
Homer’s stingy defense kept Grace out of the paint for much of the contest, but the Grizzlies made up for it with long-range shooting. Nearly half of Grace’s field goals were from beyond the arc (22 of 46), led by Mary Hogan, who hit 3 of 10 triples to notch a team-high 11 points for Grace.
A trio of 3s by Hogan and Annie VanderWeide left Grace with a 15-10 lead after one quarter, but Homer soon got its offense up and running with a trey by Stafford from the top of the arc midway through the second quarter. A corner jump shot by Reutov on the next possession tied things up at 17 apiece.
Another triple by Stafford and a driving layup by Waclawski in the final minute of play left Homer with a 22-21 lead at halftime.
“It was a matter of just settling in,” Stafford said about the second-quarter turnaround. “This is the first time playing at the Alaska Airlines Center and we were a little hesitant with our shots, but we’re used to it by now.”
Stafford’s state-level experience — this weekend marks her fifth state appearance, three of those years with 1A team Nikolaevsk — kept the Homer senior levelheaded throughout the contest.
“The loss in triple overtime (with Nikolaevsk three years ago) will do that,” she quipped.
The Mariners finally exploded in the third quarter, when Homer ended the period on a 10-0 run to take a 34-25 lead into the fourth. The Mariners held Grace scoreless in the final 5 minutes, 43 seconds, of the third frame.
A layup by Stafford with 5:21 left in the third gave Homer a 26-25 lead, which it held the rest of the way. Stafford then found space on a patient Mariners possession to knock down her third 3 of the game with 3:17 left in the quarter to put Homer up 31-25.
A corner 3 by Hogan early in the fourth quarter was nullified by a booming triple from Sam Draves on the next possession. Felice said Draves, who went down in the late minutes with a sprained ankle, will be good to go against Mt. Edgecumbe.
Grace got as close as five points in the final eight minutes, but solid ball movement and rebounding helped to drain the clock for Homer. A layup by Waclawski resulted in a 40-33 lead with 2:37 remaining in the game, and a crosscourt transition layup by Akers with 1:25 to go, plus a foul and the resulting free throw shot, put Homer up by eight points.
“That was when we were finally able to relax just a little bit,” Felice said.
The Grizzlies got two buckets by Hagen and Hogan in the final 30 seconds to cut the gap down to three points with 6.2 seconds left, but it was not enough time for Grace to get one last shot in at the buzzer.
“This was just an overall great team win,” Felice said.
The Mt. Edgecumbe girls defeated Valdez 37-32 Thursday to set up the semifinal matchup with Homer. The Mariners beat the Braves 43-40 and 54-40 on back-to-back nights in early January.
In Thursday’s other 3A girls quarterfinal contests, Barrow beat Galena 61-35 and Hutchison topped Bethel 31-27 to meet each other in today’s other semifinal.
Mariners 45, Grizzlies 42
Homer 10 12 12 11 —45
Grace 15 6 4 17 —42
HOMER (45) — Todd 0 0-0 0, Reutov 1 1-3 3, Draves 2 0-0 5, Akers 4 2-5 10, Cole 0 0-0 0, Waclawski 5 4-4 14, Stafford 4 2-3 13, Parish 0 0-0 0. Totals 16 9-15 45.
GRACE CHRISTIAN (42) — VanderWeide 4 0-0 10, Markel 0 0-0 0, Hagen 4 2-2 10, Shamburger 3 1-1 7, Hogan 4 0-0 11, Jarvis 0 0-0 0, Salima 0 0-0 0, Laker 0 4-4 4. Totals 15 7-7 42.
3-point goals — Homer 4 (Stafford 3, Draves 1); Grace Christian 5 (Hogan 3, VanderWeide 2).