A happy end after an unhappy start of the Class 3A state basketball tournament left the Nikiski girls with fourth-place honors for the season-ending weekend.
The Bulldogs finished with a 37-33 win over conference foe Anchorage Christian Schools on Saturday morning at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex in Anchorage, giving a good send-off to seniors Rachel Thompson and Chena Litzen.
“I feel very happy, accomplished, because no one thought we could do anything this year,” Thompson said after the game. “We played hard the whole tournament, and I’m so happy and proud of our team.
“Going out with a win in my last time in a Nikiski uniform is perfect.”
Thompson scored 15 first-half points en route to a game-high 19 for the Bulldogs, shooting 7 of 13 from the field and grabbing eight rebounds and four steals as well. Junior Alison Litke chipped in eight points and six boards. Nikiski finished the year with a 19-8 overall record.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson expressed his pride and happiness with a moment after the game to applaud his players and the hometown fans in the bleachers.
“I was just real excited about how aggressive we came out, and the girls left it all on the court today,” Anderson said.
The Bulldogs finished their state run with a 2-1 record, winning Friday and Saturday after dropping a first-round game Thursday to Valdez. Following the early exit, Nikiski came back with strong defense in both of the latter games, allowing only 17 points in the second and third quarters of Friday and Saturday’s contests.
“You go into your first game, you expect to win it and go to the semis, but you lose,” Anderson said. “So to be able to come back the next day is tough.
“I think last year, we didn’t do a good enough job of that, but this year we did a nice job of that, a nice job of, ‘Hey we’re ready to play again, right now.’”
The Bulldogs also held the Lions to 20 percent shooting in the second half, and brought down 25 defensive rebounds compared to 13 for ACS.
Right from the tip, however, ACS began firing away from long range and managed to hit three 3s in a row, including two from Raven Thibodeaux, to stake out an early 11-2 lead midway through the first quarter.
“Sometimes when that happens, you have the idea that this won’t go on all game,” Anderson said. “I thought if we could survive this storm, we’re going to be OK. I had the feeling that they weren’t going to shoot 100 percent on 3s all game.”
Thibodeaux led the Lions with 11 points Saturday, and hit 3 of 5 from beyond the arc.
After a banked layup by Becca Land forced Anderson to call a timeout for Nikiski, Thompson began to find her groove. The senior guard drained a trey and caught a steal and a layup on consecutive possessions to close the gap to a point late in the first quarter.
“She kind of put the team on her back in that first half and said we’re going to get this done,” Anderson said. “She just took over, it’s a great way for her to go out.”
Thompson said once the Bulldogs began playing smarter and keeping up on defensive assignments, the game turned.
“We were working ball well, weren’t rushing our passes,” she said. “We were making easy passes, not the LeBron James behind-the-back kind of passes.”
After getting fouled while driving to the hoop, Thompson sank two free throws to leave Nikiski trailing by a point with 2:08 to go in the first half. On the next possession, Hallie Riddall found space under the basket and laid in a bucket for a 19-18 Nikiski lead. The Bulldogs led 22-20 at halftime, thanks to solid 53 percent shooting from the floor.
ACS roared back to take a 28-27 lead after three quarters, getting a big 3 from Caroline Bowden late in the third quarter to tighten the game up. Although ACS struggled with finishing shots, an aggressive attack put the Lions on the free-throw line early in the fourth quarter, as Amir Williams and Flora Tebbits combined to hit 2 of 4 shots to give ACS a 29-28 lead with 5:55 left in the game.
Avery Kornstad responded with a layup 16 seconds later to take the lead, but Land answered back with a hook shot at the five-minute mark that put ACS back in front.
From there, Litke showed up for Nikiski with three big shots in succession, starting with a go-ahead layup with 4:36 remaining that put Nikiski ahead for good, 32-31.
“She finished for us, she did awesome,” Thompson said.
After Litke’s third bucket with 1:54 to go put the Bulldogs up 36-31, ACS resorted to desperation shots. It was Riddall hitting a free throw with 6.5 ticks on the clock that put Nikiski up by two possessions and iced the game.
Bulldogs 37, Lions 33
Nikiski 10 12 6 9 —37
ACS 13 7 7 6 —33
NIKISKI (37) — Perry 0 0-0 0, Riddall 2 1-3 5, Pitt 0 0-1 0, Litke 4 0-0 8, Kornstad 2 0-0 5, Thompson 7 3-5 19, Jackson 0 0-0 0, Litzen 0 0-0 0. Totals 15 4-9 37.
ACS (33) — Bowden 2 0-0 6, Tebbits 2 1-4 5, Land 4 0-3 8, Williams 0 1-2 1, Carr 1 0-0 2, Thibodeaux 4 0-2 11. Totals 13 2-11 33.
3-point goals — Nikiski 3 (Thompson 2, Kornstad 1); ACS 5 (Thibodeaux 3, Bowden 2). Fouled out — none.