A fast and furious conference clash pushed the Homer Mariners boys into a solid spot in the Southcentral Conference standings and provided a big boost for a team trying to become the best of the rest.
While the heavyweights of the Southcentral Conference, Anchorage and Grace Christian Schools, battle it out for the top seed come region time, all other teams are left to fight for the third spot. Homer made a strong statement Saturday with the win over Nikiski.
“We knew it would be a battle,” said Homer head coach Weston Carroll. “Each time we played them last year it got closer and closer.”
ACS currently holds the top seed at 6-0 while Grace is second at 5-1. Homer currently stands third at 4-2 while Nikiski dropped to fourth at 4-3.
As the prep hoops season dives into its second half, the important games are magnified, and Homer senior Koby Etzwiler flourished under the bright lights, powering the Mariners with 24 points.
“It was definitely an intense game,” Etzwiler said. “But I have confidence in my guys to do the job.”
Etwziler came alive in the second half, scoring 18 after the break and 13 in the third quarter alone. The senior guard teamed up with Jordan Beachy to help put the game away when Nikiski kept knocking on the door of a comeback. Beachy finished with 22 points himself.
“It just came down to execution and ball control,” Etzwiler said. “Nobody on this team is selfish, and it was all about getting the ball to our shooters at the end and moving it around.”
Ian Johnson led a balanced effort for Nikiski with 17 points, hitting 5 of 7 free throws, while Noah Litke scored 15 and Kornstad went 7 for 7 from the foul line for 12 points. Cody Handley chipped in 11 points as well.
Nikiski head coach Reid Kornstad pointed to several late turnovers that cost the Bulldogs, most of them steals by Etzwiler.
“They hit shots when they needed to, and we didn’t,” Kornstad said. “They also did a nice job switching defenses.”
Kornstad also praised the execution of Litke, a sophomore, who stepped up to have one of the best games of his young Nikiski career. Litke finished with 15 points on the strength of four 3-pointers.
“I’m super proud of him,” he said. “We’ve seen flashes of that before.”
Nikiski led 23-17 in the second quarter after a 3-pointer by Kornstad, but Homer responded with a trey by Beachy and a baseline layup by Charles Rohr that put Homer into the lead 26-25 with 3:25 left in the first half.
The third quarter was a game of runs, as Nikiski cut into Homer’s lead with several runs, only to have the Mariners answer with a few big shots of their own. Homer scored nine straight points with a corner 3 by Beachy that put the visitors up 42-32 midway through the third quarter, but a steal and layup by Shane Weathers helped Nikiski close back to four points.
A trey, plus a steal and layup, by Etzwiler put Homer ahead 47-38 with 1:40 left in the third, but a 3-pointer by Tyler Litke kickstarted an 8-0 run by the Bulldogs that cut the gap to 47-46 in the early seconds of the fourth quarter.
A triple by Noah Litke with 6:48 to play in the fourth cut Homer’s lead to 50-49, but that would be the final bucket by the Bulldogs until a floater by Kornstad with 31 seconds left, when Homer led by five points.
Nikiski girls 57, Homer 21
Bethany Carstens poured in 32 points and the Bulldogs defense played lights out to post a dominating conference win at home and a sixth straight win.
Nikiski lifted its conference record to 6-1, solidly in second place behind Anchorage Christian, while improving its overall mark to 14-2. Homer, meanwhile, dropped to 2-4 in the conference.
With the end of the season beginning to show up on teams’ radars, Carstens said the Nikiski girls likely have another strong shot to make a postseason run. Compared to last year’s superlative team, Carstens and head coach Scott Anderson both said speed is one tangible the current crew has over the 2017 team.
“I don’t know if we’re stronger physically, but we play a lot faster,” Carstens said.
“Speed is something we spend a lot of time in practice,” Anderson said. “Our kids have some pretty high playing IQs, they can switch in and out of a lot of defenses.”
The six-game win streak has also come without leading point guard Kelsey Clark in the lineup. Clark injured her knee in a matchup against ACS on Jan. 13, giving head coach Scott Anderson a decision on which players to rotate. Senior wing Rylee Jackson also missed Saturday with an illness.
After a sluggish start by her standards, Carstens caught fire in the second and third quarters, scoring 21 points to help distance Nikiski from Homer. Carstens said without Clark in the lineup, she has had to take on more of a point guard role.
“Without her help, we’ve all had to step up more,” Carstens said. “Everyone now has to rebound and shoot more.”
It’s led to newer varsity players such as America Jeffreys and Angela Druesedow to step up into more prominent roles. Both sophomores hit 3-pointers Saturday as Jeffreys finished with six points and Druesedow had seven.
Cora Parish and Maggie Box netted five points apiece to lead the Homer offense. Mariners head coach Chad Felice praised the quality of Nikiski’s defense, saying that his squad struggled to solve it.
“We just didn’t have it today,” Felice said. “I’m not sure if it was a Saturday afternoon thing, maybe we were tired or what, but Nikiski played really good defense and rebounded a lot better than us.”
With two losses to Grace Christian and Seward earlier this year that combined for an 11-point margin of victory, Felice said the team is not that far behind third place in the standings.
“We’re 11 points from third,” he said. “We’re shooting for third.”
The Nikiski defense shut out the Mariners in the first quarter while staking out a 12-0 lead. A pair of triples by America Jeffreys and Carstens kept the offense flowing to leads of 17-0 and 24-2.
By halftime, the home team had opened up a commanding 27-4 lead.
Carstens connected on a trey just 10 seconds into the second half, helping to spark a 15-4 run that effectively put the game away.
Mariners 65, Bulldogs 61
Homer 17 12 18 18 —65
Nikiski 18 9 16 18 —61
HOMER (65) — Rohr 2 1-6 5, Etzwiler 8 5-6 24, Adkins 1 3-6 5, Reutov 0 0-0 0, Carroll 3 1-2 9, J. Beachy 7 4-5 22, McGhee 0 0-2 0. Totals 21 14-27 65.
NIKISKI (61) — Johnson 6 5-7 17, Weathers 1 0-0 3, Ellis 0 0-0 0, Kornstad 2 7-7 12, T. Litke 1 0-0 3, Handley 3 5-7 11, N. Litke 5 1-2 15, Eiter 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 18-23 61.
3-point goals — Homer 9 (Beachy 4, Etzwiler 3, Carroll 2); Nikiski 7 (N. Litke 4, T. Litke 1, Kornstad 1, Weathers 1).
Team fouls — Homer 17; Nikiski 19. Fouled out — N. Litke.
Bulldogs 57, Mariners 21
Homer 0 4 9 8 —21
Nikiski 12 15 15 15 —57
HOMER (21) — Bales 0 0-0 0, Godfrey 2 0-0 4, A. Bishop 0 1-2 1, G. Godfrey 1 2-2 4, Todd 0 0-2 0, Parish 2 1-4 5, Carroll 0 0-0 0, Veldstra 0 0-0 0, Cole 0 2-2 2, Box 2 1-2 5. Totals 7 7-14 21.
NIKISKI (57) — Jeffreys 2 1-2 6, Wik 2 1-2 5, L. Carstens 1 1-2 3, Bostic 0 0-0 0, Johnson 1 0-0 2, B. Carstens 12 3-5 32, Epperheimer 0 2-3 2, Druesdow 1 4-6 7. Totals 19 12-20 57.
3-point goals — Homer 0; Nikiski 7 (B. Carstens 5, Jeffreys 1, Druesedow 1).