On the opening tip of Saturday’s Class 3A girls state title game, the Nikiski girls basketball team had a chance to snap a 13-year championship drought.
Within 20 minutes, the dream had become a nightmare.
The Anchorage Christian School girls rolled to the Class 3A crown Saturday with an overwhelming 63-48 victory over the Bulldogs, completing an undefeated season along the way, at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The title was their third in a row and fourth in the last six years, putting the Lions on the fringes of a 3A dynasty.
For Nikiski, it was one victory short of the Bulldogs’ ultimate goal, but the only tears being shed at the finish were ones of joy for a successful 26-5 season that ended with a runner-up finish to the consensus best girls team in the state, regardless of division.
“It hasn’t really hit yet,” said senior Bethany Carstens. “I feel like I should be way more sad.”
Carstens led Nikiski’s attack with 15 points, while teammates America Jeffreys and Kelsey Clark chipped in eight points each, with Clark pulling down seven rebounds as well. Lillian Carstens also cleaned up on the glass with eight boards.
Destiny Reimers and Jordan Todd played lead roles in the scoring splurge that ACS enjoyed early on. Reimers led the team with 15 points and seven boards and Todd had 14 points and seven rebounds.
For Carstens, the game was the highest result of a sterling individual career at Nikiski. Carstens earned two Class 3A Girls Player of the Year awards in three full seasons and is committed to playing Division I hoops at Chicago State University, accomplishments made more remarkable after dealing with two serious knee injuries.
“I’m happy,” Carstens said about her four years at Nikiski. “It was really fun. Hanging out with all these girls was so much fun.”
Fellow seniors Emma Wik and Kelsey Clark echoed Cartstens’ thoughts about the bonds the team formed over the seasons.
“It’s not going to be the games that I remember,” Wik said. “It’s going to be the relationships I built with all of them.”
As the top-seeded girls team in the tournament, ACS felt pressure to perform against a tested squad like Nikiski, said ACS head coach Chad Dyson.
“It’s a different kind of pressure going in because the last two years we weren’t ranked number one,” Dyson said. “I feel for the girls because they had a lot of weight on their shoulders.”
The ferocious defensive press employed by the Lions gave the Bulldogs fits early on as ACS poured in 21 unanswered points in the first and second quarters to stake out a 31-6 lead with five minutes left until halftime.
“We came out too scared, too overwhelmed,” Jeffreys explained. “We got too excited.”
Ultimately, Nikiski turned the ball over 23 times as the Bulldogs struggled to gain control of a game that quickly slipped out of reach. The spurt of turnovers resulted in a lopsided game being predominantly played on one end of the court. By halftime, ACS had more than twice as many field-goal attempts as Nikiski at 40 to 19.
“It was a weird mixture of being pensive and panicked,” Nikiski head coach Rustin Hitchcock said. “Once they found that balance, it just looked so much better.”
Hitchcock said the sluggish start reminded him of the Southcentral Conference title game just two weeks prior, when the Bulldogs quickly fell into a 17-3 hole in the first quarter en route to a loss.
“I think we had a flashback to the region game,” Hitchcock said. “(In that game) the press just overcame us. … This time, we almost just played too fast. It was kind of a thing over this tournament. In the first and second quarters, it felt like we have to score 100 points all of a sudden.”
Hitchcock said Lions guard Sarah Sorrells played a key role as Sorrells hit three 3s for nine points overall. Sorrells helped spark an 11-0 run by ACS in the final two minutes of the first quarter that pushed the lead from four points to 21-6, with three treys a part of that run.
The momentum kept up in the opening minutes of the second quarter. Parks swiped a steal and raced off for a layup with 7:05 left in the second, then took a turnover on a block by Kelsey Smallwood the other way for a bucket.
Jeffreys helped Nikiski get back into the game midway through the second with a 3-pointer and kept it up with a post shot on the next possession.
However, the Lions used their relentless press to keep the Bulldogs at bay. By halftime, ACS led 42-18.
Dyson praised the defensive effort by Mary Kate Parks for maintaining the lead once the Lions took it. Dyson said Parks’ role in guarding the core Nikiski ballhandlers with quickness and agility helped earlier in the year against bigger 4A schools like the Dimond Lynx, who the Lions defeated.
“She consistently came to play every game, she shows up to every practice,” Dyson said.
The third quarter saw a renewed effort and execution by Nikiski with several timely buckets by Wik and Carstens, but while the Nikiski offense began clicking, the defense was still stuck in gear. For every Bulldogs bucket, the Lions were answering. By the end of the third quarter, the lead had grown to 58-32.
When the final buzzer sounded, the Lions celebrated on one end of the court, while the Bulldogs gathered around their bench one last time. Hitchcock, in his first year with the team, said the season was a success regardless of the result at state.
“It’s a great way to end it for the seniors,” he said. “I thought we were the model of consistency throughout, we were able to win games on the road and lead consistently, but ultimately, off the court stuff, this is a great group of kids. Nikiski is proud of them and they should be proud of Nikiski.”
With a state volleyball championship and runner-up finish to their credit as well, Wik said the banners are what she will be most happy to see in future years.
“This is our third banner we’ve gotten to hang,” Wik said.
At the conclusion of the tournament, Nikiski was also awarded the academic honor with an average team grade-point average of 3.90, and Carstens and Kenai Central senior Brooke Satathite were announced to the All-State All-Tournament team.
LIONS 63, BULLDOGS 48
ACS 21 21 16 5 —63
Nikiski 6 12 14 16 —48
ACS (63) — Parks 10, Smallwood 2, Davis 6, Reimers 15, Tiulana 2, Powell 0, Pickard 3, Sorrells 9, Yisrael 2, Todd 14.
NIKISKI (48) — Jeffreys 8, Wik 5, L. Carstens 3, Bostic 7, Johnson 2, B. Carstens 15, Epperheimer 0, Clark 8, Druesedow 0, Hooper 0.
3-point FG — ACS 6 (Sorrells 3, Davis 2, Pickard 1); Nikiski 4 (Jeffreys 1, Wik 1, B. Carstens 1, L. Carstens 1).
Team fouls — ACS 19; Nikiski 19. Fouled out — none.