A year after Valdez ended Nikiski’s season at the state tournament, the Bulldogs were looking for a second chance.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers pulled out all the same tricks in a 47-33 win over the Bulldogs that advances them to a semifinal matchup with Barrow.
The Bulldogs drop into the consolation bracket with an 11:20 a.m. meeting today with Bethel.
Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said since his players left last year with a similar feel, it isn’t as hard the second time around with a more experienced team.
“I think the whole thing’s a little easier for us,” Anderson said. “I think our girls came in ready to play, I felt like we played a team that was really talented.
“But it still hurts to lose that game. They worked really hard to get ready for it.”
Much of Nikiski’s focus was naturally on powerful senior Marian Wamsley, who already is signed up to play with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Nanooks next year. Wamsley was held to 10 points and seven rebounds, which is pedestrian for the lethal Valdez forward.
“They look like a team on a mission, so I expect them to do very well moving forward,” Anderson said about the Bucs.
For Nikiski, senior Rachel Thompson led with 11 points on 4-for-10 shooting, while junior Hallie Riddall stepped up to nearly score a double-double with nine points and nine boards.
“I told them they played hard and really got after it, and they gave it their best shot,” Anderson said about the postgame huddle. “Now there’s tomorrow. We’re not done yet.”
The most glaring mistakes Nikiski struggled with were turnovers. The Bulldogs turned the ball over 20 times to Valdez’s 13.
“That’s where we get most of our points,” said Valdez coach Doug Fleming. “If we push it hard and play defense, our offense comes after that.”
A ferocious front court defense of Katy Merioles and Makenzi Mott combined to attack the Nikiski ball-handlers with speed, and the Bulldogs paid dearly.
Early on, Nikiski actually led in brief instances. Riddall found space under the rim for a layup midway through the first quarter to put Nikiski up 6-5, then a five-point streak was capped by a driving floater by Chena Litzen that put Nikiski up by a point, and on their next possession, Riddall put the Bulldogs ahead 16-15 with 5:20 to go in the second quarter. Litzen ended with eight points.
However, that would be the last time Nikiski led, as Valdez finished the first half strong with a 9-0 run to grab a 24-16 halftime lead.
“They really pressure the ball, and press and trap,” Anderson said. “I feel like we handled it well early in the game but later we got tired and lost our focus on that.”
Litzen scored six of her eight points in the first half on 3-for-4 shooting, but it was Valdez that attacked hard in the second half. A trey by Merioles with 54 seconds left in the third quarter put Valdez up 34-19, and the Bucs led by as much as 16 early in the fourth.
Nikiski attempted a final surge in the fourth quarter, as Thompson began to finally find her stride from 3-point land, hitting two in succession to close the gap to 37-27 with 5:30 to play.
“I think it was just a matter of continuing to stay aggressive,” Anderson said. “We got a little tentative after that and turned it over a few times, and that’s not going to go well when you’re playing a team like Valdez.”
After getting fouled on a made layup, Thompson stepped up and hit the free throw to further cut Valdez’s lead to 39-30 with just over five minutes left. From there, Wamsley managed to ice the game on consecutive layups, the second one coming a steal and assist from a teammate. In the second half, Valdez shot 10 for 18 (55 percent) from the field, while Nikiski was 33 percent.
After the game, Fleming said he believes in his team enough to beat the top-seeded Barrow Whalers, partly because he thinks the seeding is slightly deceptive.
“I don’t agree with it,” Fleming said about the seedings. “(Hutchison) is a two seed and we’ve beat them three times this year already.”
Anderson said Nikiski’s one goal was to play to Saturday, which is still in the air.
“Tomorrow we’re going to have to recover quickly and get back after it,” the coach said. “We tend to get down when we’re behind.”
Hutchison girls 45, Homer 36
In the late game Thursday night, the Homer Mariners also saw their state hopes come to an early end, as Hutchison won in a wire-to-wire quarterfinal victory.
The win puts the Hawks in a semifinal matchup Friday with Sitka, while the Mariners were relegated to the consolation bracket and will face Anchorage Christian Schools today at 1 p.m. Homer and ACS split their two regular-season matchups, with Homer getting the better of the Lions in the second game.
Thursday night, Homer fell into an early double-digit hole and could never quite recover.
“The girls were amped up in the first quarter and lot of our shots were long,” said first-year coach Chad Felice. “It was just a lot of energy, they were tense. This is a big stage for them. It’s kind of tough to adjust to.”
Elly Veazey and Ashley Stark combined for 23 points for Hutchison, as Veazey led the way with 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting on two-point field goals, and Stark netted 11 points and grabbed five rebounds.
Junior forward Madison Akers scored a game-high 15 points for Homer and added nine boards and four steals. Juniors Aurora Waclawski and Kayla Stafford each chipped in eight points as well.
Before the first five minutes were up, Hutchison had streaked out to a 12-2 lead, with buckets from five different players. It wasn’t until late in the first quarter that the Mariners offense began to wake up, as Akers used her size to push around Hutchison defenders and find decent space under the rim for layups and hook shots, leading to a 21-13 Hutchison lead at the end of the quarter.
The Hawks and Mariners went step-for-step with each other in the second frame for a 28-21 score at halftime. There was little doubt that Hutchison had a hot hand in the first half, shooting 46 percent from the floor, while Homer was held to 25 percent.
Felice said his halftime locker room speech seemed to work.
“I told them the first half’s over, we’ve got the jitters out, let’s go play our game,” Felice said. “We kind of came out and were pressing them.”
Sure enough, the Mariners opened the second half strong with buckets from Stafford and Akers that quickly cut the deficit to 28-27 with 4:26 left in the third quarter. Following another hook shot by Akers with 2:16 left in the frame, Homer trailed 30-29, but that would be as close as they would get.
“I was thinking we have this,” Felice said. “Usually that’s where we pull ahead.”
The Hawks used a tough defensive press to force turnovers and controlled the glass to get second-chance baskets as they hit on a 7-0 run to widen the gap. Stafford and Waclawski both hit shots in the final six minutes of the fourth quarter to keep Homer in the game, but a 4-for-4 performance from the free-throw line by the Hawks in the final 87 seconds iced the game.
Felice said he harbors no regrets in a year that saw Homer win the region tournament on its home floor.
“We’re young yet, just have two seniors,” he said. “We’ve got to prove to people why we’re here. We’ve got to prove to people why we made it here and why we won our region and what we’re about.
“I’m proud of those girls, and they’ve made me a better basketball coach.”
3A state quarterfinals
Buccaneers 47, Bulldogs 33
Valdez 10 14 12 11 —47
Nikiski 8 8 5 12 —33
VALDEZ (47) — S. Hursh 1 0-0 2, Merioles 4 0-0 9, V. Hursh 4 2-2 10, Mott 6 2-3 15, Fleming 0 1-4 1, Sharrai 0 0-0 0, Wamsley 5 0-0 10. Totals 20 5-9 47.
NIKISKI (33) — Riddall 4 0-0 9, Vollertsen 0 0-2 0, Pitt 1 0-0 2, Litke 0 3-6 3, Kornstad 0 0-0 0, Thompson 4 1-1 11, Jackson 0 0-0 0, Litzen 4 0-0 8. Totals 13 4-9 33.
3-point goals — Nikiski 3 (Thompson 2, Riddall 1); Valdez 2 (Merioles 1, Mott 1). Fouled out — none.
Hawks 45, Mariners 36
Homer 13 8 8 7 —36
Hutchison 21 7 6 11 —45
HOMER (36) — Reutov 1 0-0 2, Alexander 0 0-0 0, Clark 0 1-2 1, Akers 7 1-2 15, Fellows 0 2-2 2, Waclawski 3 1-1 8, Stafford 3 1-1 8. Totals 14 6-8 36.
HUTCHISON (45) — Stark 5 1-2 11, Peterson 2 0-1 6, McCormick 1 0-0 2, Cota-Sanchez 1 0-0 2, Titus 1 2-2 5, Veazey 6 0-0 12, Hopper 2 3-5 7. Totals 18 6-10 45.
3-point goals — Homer 2 (Waclawski 1, Stafford 1); Hutchison 3 (Peterson 2, Titus 1). Fouled out — none.