With both teams ranked in the top five of the Winning Percentage Index standings for most of the season, the matchup between Alaska’s northernmost team in the state and Nikiski seemed destined for a championship clash in the Class 3A girls state tournament.
Instead, the Nikiski girls met the defending state champions Barrow on Saturday morning with third place on the line. The Bulldogs fell in a 45-34 loss to the Whalers at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage. The loss left Nikiski with a fifth-place finish at state.
The game capped a 25-win season for the success-driven Bulldogs, and the gravity of the moment eventually hit the senior class of Avery Kornstad, Brianna Vollertsen, Ayla Pitt and Amy Porter.
“I enjoyed playing with these girls every minute of the season,” a tearful Kornstad said. “This is our last year, and to play with such a great team … it’s great.”
“Every single day was different,” added Vollertsen. “There was always something new.”
The year ended 25-5 overall for Nikiski, a season that included a 15-game win streak that ran from Jan. 12 to Feb. 24 and ended with the Bulldogs standing as co-champions of the Southcentral Conference with Anchorage Christian.
“I definitely feel like I laid it all out there,” Vollertsen said. “Some things didn’t go our way, but we gave it everything.”
Sophomore Emma Wik and junior Rylee Jackson each finished with a team-high eight points to lead Nikiski on Saturday, while Jackson brought down nine rebounds as well.
Pitt grabbed 10 boards to go along with five points, and Kornstad hit a pair of 3-pointers to finish with seven.
Although it was not the title game battle for which the Bulldogs were hoping, the chance to test their mettle against one of the state’s top Class 3A girls teams was enough to suffice.
“We wanted to play Barrow,” Kornstad said. “Whether it was the championship or third-place game, we wanted to play them.”
Nikiski struggled to hold up under Barrow’s defensive press, losing 30 turnovers to the Whalers, 22 of them on steals. Overall, Barrow scored 20 points on Nikiski turnovers.
The Bulldogs contained Barrow’s post threat Rose Mongoyak by holding her to six points and three rebounds, but Milya Wright did the most damage with 24 points and 12 boards, sinking 11 of 19 shots in the paint to lead the Whalers.
Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson harbored no regrets with the way his squad finished the year. A state semifinal game, with a team that was without scoring leader Bethany Carstens, was fine in his mind.
“In my book, that’s a win,” he said. “We talk about total release and to give everything, and we had a chance.”
A poor shooting night in Friday’s semifinal loss to Sitka doomed Nikiski to a season-low 15 points in the loss, but the Bulldogs eclipsed that mark before halftime of Saturday’s game, as both teams sat deadlocked at the break with 17 points apiece.
“I thought they came back and played 100 percent,” Anderson said. “It was better than last night.”
Nikiski pulled together a 6-0 run in the second quarter to grab a 16-13 lead, but the Whalers erased it with a floater by Mongoyak that was quickly followed by a steal and layup by Wright, who ended the first half with 11 points.
Pitt laid in a floater a minute into the second half to put Nikiski up by two, but the lead quickly vanished with an 11-0 run by Barrow, starting with a steal, a missed shot and a putback on the rebound by Alaina Wolgemuth. The Whalers took the lead for good on the next possession on a fast-break layup by Wright.
After falling into a 28-19 hole with 2:54 left in the third quarter, Nikiski answered with a 6-0 run with buckets from Kelsey Clark, Rylee Jackson and Vollertsen, who capped it with a steal and layup.
Kornstad connected on a triple and Rylee Jackson drained a jumper with 5:04 to play in the fourth quarter to cut Barrow’s lead to 36-33, but that would be the closest the Bulldogs got in the final minutes. The Whalers rolled off a 5-0 run with a rebound putback and a fast-break layup to push the lead to 41-33 with three minutes to go.
Kornstad, who will be continuing her basketball career at Emmaus Bible College in Dubuque, Iowa, said the senior class wanted to leave the younger players with a sense of community and teamwork.
“We want them to have fun, and love each other no matter what,” Kornstad said.
“You have to be there for each other,” Vollertsen added. “You have to be together.”
Whalers 45, Bulldogs 34
Barrow 11 6 15 13 — 45
Nikiski 8 9 11 6 — 34
BARROW (45) — Wolgemuth 1 0-4 2, Mongoyak-Brower 0 0-0 0, Nicely 1 2-4 4, Gerke 1 0-1 2, Mongoyak 3 0-2 6, Wright 11 2-3 24, Ahgeak 0 0-0 0, Tua’i 1 1-2 3, Wolgemuth 0 1-2 1, Tula’l 1 1-2 3. Totals 19 7-20 45.
NIKISKI (34) — Wik 3 0-2 8, Pitt 1 3-4 5, Vollertsen 1 0-0 2, Johnson 0 0-0 0, Kornstad 2 1-2 7, Clark 2 0-0 4, Jackson 4 0-2 8, Porter 0 0-0 0, Bostic 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 4-10 34.
3-point goals – Barrow 0; Nikiski 4 (Wik 2, Kornstad 2).
Team fouls — Barrow 13, Nikiski 17. Fouled out — none.