The Kenai Central boys won the first half, but the Soldotna boys won the war Saturday afternoon at Soldotna High School.
SoHi rallied from a 13-point first-half deficit to capture Saturday’s regular-season finale over Kenai 47-42 and the season series. SoHi beat Kenai 57-49 earlier in the season.
“We had a lethargic first half,” admitted SoHi coach Mark Tuter. “But we got a couple baskets in the second half and Derek (Evans) got us going.”
With his Stars trailing 24-13 at halftime, Evans opened the second half with two consecutive layups that kick-started the run to reel Kenai back in. Evans ended the game with 10 points.
“I’m not sure it has sunk in yet,” Evans said after the game.
Timmy Smithwick closed fast once again and finished with a team-high 12 points, including eight in the fourth quarter, and Griffin Casey chipped in 11.
Senior guard Keith Ivy led the Kards with 12 points, all in the first half, and Marshall Vest scored 11.
With the win, SoHi finishes fourth in the conference standings with a 5-5 record, 11-12 overall, while Kenai ends the regular season 3-7, 10-13 overall, and fifth in the standings. The seeding means the two teams will be facing each other right away again on the opening day of next weekend’s Northern Lights Conference tournament in Palmer.
Wasilla won the regular season championship with a 9-1 division record, while Colony took second at 7-3 (two of those losses to Kenai and SoHi) and Palmer took third with a 6-4 mark. Kodiak finished last at 0-10.
Coach Tuter said the opportunity to play the Kards again is one he’ll gladly take.
“We had a press that Kenai had trouble with,” Tuter said. “Once we stopped being passive on the other end, things started clicking.”
The two layups in the first 1 minute, 19 seconds, of the second half by Evans got SoHi pointed in the right direction. A massive triple by Eli Sheridan midway through the third quarter closed SoHi’s gap to 26-22, and a layup plus the foul shot by Casey on the next Stars possession left SoHi trailing by one.
With 3:31 left in the quarter, Sheridan buried a 3-pointer from the top of the arc to give SoHi its first lead of the game at 28-26. At the end of the third quarter, SoHi led 31-29 and outscored Kenai in the frame 18-5.
Two free throws by Vest with 3:35 to go in the game put Kenai back into the lead 38-37, but Smithwick began heating up with a transition layup on the other end to give SoHi its lead back.
Sheridan had his turn at the free-throw line with two minutes left, and sunk both to push the Stars lead to 41-38. Vest returned the favor by rolling in a layup with 1:33 left to cut the lead to one, but Smithwick answered back for SoHi with a deft touch, scoring the layup that resulted in a 43-40 lead with 1:09 to go.
“He’s got ice in his veins,” Evans said about Smithwick. “I don’t know how he does it.”
After a timeout, Kenai coach Ken Felchle put Zack Tuttle in the game, and Tuttle immediately responded by catching a steal from Dylan Kuntz and racing down for a layup with 31 seconds to go and cutting Kenai’s gap back to 43-42.
Smithwick hit a floater on the next play by SoHi, setting up the final sequence of events with the score at 45-42 SoHi leading. Vest launched a trey from near the top of the arc but missed wide, and a Kenai foul put Casey at the free-throw line with a second and a half on the clock.
“I was sure he was going to make it, I was scared to death,” Evans said about Vest. “He’s a great shooter.”
Casey hit the foul shots to ice the victory.
Kenai girls 32, Soldotna 30
Both sides got their moment to shine in the final seconds of Saturday’s regular-season finale, but the Kards got the last laugh.
Kenai senior Hannah Drury put up the game-winning shot with three seconds left to seal a dramatic Kenai victory. Drury’s heroics were preceded by Soldotna senior Lindsey Wong, who scored six unanswered points for the Stars and tied it up with a crafty banked shot off the glass with 16 seconds left.
“Lindsey’s a great player and it’s really hard to contain her,” Drury said. “At the end, we just had the mentality that we had to do whatever it took to win the game, not settle and go into overtime.”
The exciting finish capped a defensive, turnover-laden affair that appeared destined to be won by whichever team could hold on to the ball long enough to successfully run a full play. However, the finish more than made up for it.
Alexis Baker led Kenai with 11 points, and Drury and fellow senior Alli Steinbeck scored eight points each. Wong led SoHi’s charge with 11 points, including seven in the fourth quarter.
The Kards ended the regular season 4-6 in conference and fourth in the NLC standings, while SoHi ends 2-8 and with the fifth seed. Wasilla clinched the regular-season title with a clean 10-game sweep of division opponents, while Colony finished second at 8-2 and Palmer took third at 6-4. Kodiak finished last with an 0-10 mark.
The win also gave Kenai a season sweep over SoHi, after the Kards claimed the first round 38-25 over the Stars in mid January.
As the fourth and fifth seeds, Kenai and SoHi will be right back at it next Thursday on the opening day of the NLC tournament in Palmer. That wasn’t quite that for which Kenai coach Cary Calvert was hoping.
“Ideally, we want that third seed to stay away from Wasilla, but we have to see SoHi again anyway,” Calvert said. “We want to play the Valley schools.”
Calvert said trying to find a player that can cover some of Soldotna’s more versatile players such as Wong was challenging, but he managed to find one in Baker.
The rim and netting proved to be elusive in the first quarter, as Kenai led 6-4 after eight minutes, but the Stars began finding a groove in the second frame. Danica Schmidt’s layup with 6:27 to play in the first half gave SoHi an 8-6 lead, which they built up to 12-6 with jump shots from Daisy Nelson.
A turnaround jumper from Steinbeck with 3:40 left in the second quarter helped Kenai claw back some of the deficit, and a layup with 91 seconds left put Kenai back into the lead 13-12, which the Kards led by at halftime.
Kenai embarked on a 7-1 run to start the second half, with Baker and Drury doing most of the damage. Baker’s steal and transition layup with 5 minutes left in the third quarter left the Kards leading 20-13. By the end of the frame, Kenai boosted its lead to 24-17.
A 6-1 run midway through the fourth quarter left Kenai holding onto a 30-22 lead and only 2:44 to play.
From there, Wong seized control and scored three straight buckets to bring SoHi right back into the mix, starting with a baseline drive by Wong with 1:27 to go which cut the lead to four points, and with 36 ticks left, Wong charged down the court to knock in a driving layup.
Wong’s bank shot with 16 seconds on the clock tied the game at 30-apiece and sent the home crowd into a frenzy, but it proved to be a temporary high, as Drury provided the last fireworks.
“I had no idea what would happen at the end,” Drury said.
Stars 47, Kardinals 42
Kenai 15 9 5 13 —42
Soldotna 7 6 18 16 —47
KENAI (42) — Ta. Landry 1 0-0 2, Ivy 5 0-0 12, Vest 4 2-3 11, Brazell 0 0-0 0, Tuttle 1 0-0 2, Jackman 3 1-2 7, Beiser 0 1-2 1, Fitt 1 3-4 5, Johnson 1 0-0 2. Totals 16 7-11 42.
SOLDOTNA (47) — Kuntz 1 0-0 2, Sheridan 2 2-2 8, Casey 3 5-5 11, Spence 1 0-1 2, Dickson 1 0-1 2, Smithwick 6 0-1 12, Evans 4 2-4 10. Totals 18 9-14 47.
3-point goals — Kenai 3 (Ivy 2, Vest 1); Soldotna 2 (Sheridan 2).
Team fouls — Kenai 18; Soldotna 10. Fouled out — Fitt.
Kardinals 32, Stars 30
Kenai 6 7 11 8 —32
Soldotna 4 8 5 13 —30
KENAI (32) — Calvert 0 0-0 0, Holmes 0 0-0 0, Drury 3 2-2 8, Steinbeck 4 0-1 8, Creighton 1 1-5 3, Baker 4 1-3 11, Booth 0 0-0 0, Rose 0 0-0 0, Satathite 1 0-2 2. Totals 13 4-13 32.
SOLDOTNA (30) — Nelson 2 0-0 4, Miller 0 0-0 0, A. Schmidt 1 0-0 2, Wong 5 1-2 11, Blossom 1 0-0 2, Brush 0 0-0 0, McElroy 1 1-2 3, D. Schmidt 3 2-2 8, Tuisaula 0 0-0 0, Kindred 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 4-6 30.
3-point goals — Kenai 0; Soldotna 0.