As the opening minutes rolled out from tipoff of the Southcentral Conference tournament semifinal game, the home team Nikiski girls looked to be on their way to the conference final and an automatic state berth.
But, as the old cliche goes, everything changed in the blink of an eye.
Nikiski’s leading scorer and most dangerous player Bethany Carstens picked a steal from a Grace Christian guard and raced up court for a fast-break layup, which was contested by Grace’s Makenna Shamburger. Carstens and Shamburger leapt into the air together as Carstens tried to score and draw a potential foul.
The landing hurt, but the realization that her season would come to a premature end hurt more for Carstens.
“It kind of hit me that night, as soon as everything was done,” Carstens said Tuesday evening from home. “I went home and realized I couldn’t play anymore.”
The play came only 4 minutes, 32 seconds, into the semifinal contest, but Carstens knew right away that her night was over. The 5-foot-9 sophomore lay writhing in pain on the floor, and Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson came to her side, along with Carstens’ father, Nikiski High principal Dan Carstens.
The end result was a torn anterior cruciate ligament — a common sports injury — a medial collateral ligament tear and a fractured femur, according to Carstens.
The injury left Carstens hobbling around on crutches and the Nikiski girls team in tears as they scrambled to prepare for a state tournament run without their star player.
“She’s not just vital to the team as a player, but she’s a great team member,” Anderson said.
The big dance tips off today for Nikiski, which opens with a 6:30 p.m. quarterfinal clash with (who else?) Grace Christian at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Bulldogs are undoubtedly a deep team that is fundamentally sound, as a 23-3 regular season record would suggest, but take away one leg of the chair and it becomes a little more wobbly.
“She was 40 percent of our offense,” said senior guard Avery Kornstad after a recent practice at Nikiski. “So we’ve got to figure out how to come up with 40 percent more.”
“We’ve got to learn how to work as a new team,” added sophomore Kelsey Clark.
Carstens averaged 21 points per game herself in the regular season, three times as much as the next highest average on the team, and leads the Bulldogs in every statistical category save for blocks.
The injury was the second for Carstens, who missed her entire freshman campaign after sustaining a similar ACL tear during an open gym session prior to the 2015-16 season. That injury came to her right knee, while the most recent one impacted her left knee.
“This one felt worse than the other time it happened,” Carstens said.
It leaves the third-seeded Bulldogs in a predicament. At least the team is sporting a cheerful attitude this week.
“Coach told us after we lost (the semifinal) that we had a couple hours to get our emotions out before we have to get focused for the next game,” Clark said.
Kornstad said after Carstens went down, she felt the intensity of the game pick up. In the following three and a half quarters of action, the Bulldogs and Grizzlies battled hard for that guaranteed state spot. Grace Christian came away 33-27 winners.
At the sound of the final buzzer, several Nikiski players broke down and shed some tears upon seeing their region title hopes go up in smoke.
“After that game, I went home and cried,” Kornstad said. “But I wasn’t really crying over Bethany, which, yes, it was sad she went down, but I was crying because that was the first time I’ve played a semifinal game and lost.
“But then my dad came home and said you cannot feel bad about this. You have to turn around and kick their butts tomorrow.”
In the postgame breakdown after the semifinal loss, Anderson made it clear to his players that they needed to leave the game in the past and put every ounce of focus and energy into preparing for state.
“I said to take a look around,” Anderson said. “This is the team we have the rest of the way, and we’re going to have to do this together.
“I said you have 10 more minutes to think about this loss, and then we need to move on to tomorrow morning.”
The team showed up Saturday to chase down third place in the tournament. After a shaky start to the early morning contest against Houston, the Bulldogs tore up the court and finished the day with two blowout wins.
Because Nikiski did not receive one of the two automatic state bids from the Southcentral Conference, the Bulldogs had to rely on picking up a state berth on the Winning Percentage Index rankings, which grades teams at the Class 3A and 4A levels of basketball in the state. The mathematical formula takes into account wins and losses against fellow 3A opponents and their win-loss record.
The Bulldogs ended up with a state spot as the No. 3 seed, pairing them with the No. 6 Grace Christian Grizzlies. Barrow took the top seed and Sitka was second. Nikiski played Grace Christian very close in all three meetings this year, as the Bulldogs won the two regular-season matchups and the Grizzlies won the conference tournament game.
If Nikiski can move on to the state semifinal round, a date with Sitka could be looming. Nikiski beat Sitka 47-28 in mid-February to win the Grace Hardwood Classic, but without Carstens, a close game seems more likely, but a win is very possible.
The biggest question mark remains in Barrow, a tough group of players who are fundamentally stout. Last year, Barrow cruised to the 3A girls state crown with a 49-26 win over Homer in the finale.
So how exactly does Nikiski plan to make a deep state run without their leading scorer, and who will pick up the slack?
Coach Anderson decided to put things in perspective by breaking it down to simple math. If everyone contributes six points each, it should add up to a 60-point night, which should be enough to win.
“I told them, ‘Don’t be afraid to dream big,’” Anderson said. “They should wake people up in the stands and make them say, ‘Wow, who is that girl?’”
Anderson said returning to the court the day after Carstens’ injury to win a pair of games against Houston and Seward was the best medicine for the grief-stricken Bulldogs. Nikiski ended up taking third place at the tournament, and Carstens said she was happy to see her teammates and friends succeed without her.
“For the team, it helped everyone’s confidence,” she said. “Everybody was stepping up and doing their best.”
Kornstad said the team chemistry is still at a peak, and that, “We’re a bunch of goofballs, we all get along with each other.”
Anderson listed off several players that will have to make up for Carstens’ absence, including Clark, Kornstad and seniors Brianna Vollertsen and Ayla Pitt. Anderson said the team also should see sophomore Emma Wik get an increase in production. Wik led the Bulldogs in the regular season in 3-point scoring and efficiency, with a .348 percentage from beyond the arc, and rolled into the region tourney on a hot streak after scoring a season-high 27 points on Anchorage Christian on March 3.
Kornstad said her younger teammate could go to school on opponents at the state tournament.
“Emma’s been kicking my butt,” she said. “She has this absolute, complete confidence and when she hits a few shots, you have to look out for her.”
Anderson also said junior Rylee Jackson and freshman bench player Kaitlyn Johnson could also figure into the equation.
After watching a week and a half of practice from the sidelines, Carstens said she is looking forward to seeing her teammates in action at the big dance.
“I’m still really excited for them and can’t wait to watch them,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what they can do.”