Defense wins championships.
That mantra has been proven to be true time and time again, and it’s exactly what the Nikiski and Seward girls hoops teams will be relying on to carry them through the Class 3A state tournament, which begins Thursday at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
As the two teams representing the Kenai Peninsula in the 3A tournament, both managed to clinch a state berth last weekend at the Southcentral Conference tournament in Cordova by keeping their opponents’ scoring to a minimum.
The Bulldogs beat Cordova 50-31 on the first day, holding the home team to 10 points in the first half, then topped Seward 42-32 in the semifinals, outscoring the Seahawks 23-7 in the final quarter to clinch their first state berth since 2009.
“Through the season, our defense has been rock-solid,” said Nikiski coach Scott Anderson. “I think we’re giving up around 35 points a game, which is really good for us. I told the girls if you hold a team to 20 points, you’re going to win the game, so they try to focus on defense.”
Seward was even more stifling, statistically, over the weekend, beating Grace Christian 33-11 on Thursday, then beating them again 35-12 in Saturday’s third-place game by shutting them out completely in the second half. In the two games combined, Seward allowed the Grizzlies to score only 23 points in 64 minutes of action, so the defensive effort is there.
“It’s huge,” said Seward coach Mark Clemens. “We’ve been working on offense too, but sometimes defense is easier to get tuned up.”
Simply making it to the state tournament is a tall order, so in order to further polish their offense and defensive play, both Nikiski and Seward will each be using their boys squads to challenge the girls and keep them sharp, taking full advantage of the fact that both schools’ boys teams missed the cut to state.
“At this point, we’re not working on any new things, just fine-tuning our offensive and defensive schemes,” Anderson said.
Nikiski opens Thursday with a 3:30 p.m. game with Mt. Edgecumbe, the top seed from the Southeast Conference, and if they hope to move on to Friday’s semifinals, they’ll need to keep the Braves’ Taryn White from finding the rim as she typically does.
“It’s going to go through her,” Anderson said. “The last time we played them, we led for two and a half quarters, and then they had a bit of surge, and we stayed close but we just couldn’t finish it.”
Mt. Edgecumbe’s top threat has been a terror for other 3A teams by averaging double-double figures with 13 points and 10 rebounds a game, and when the Braves visited the Kenai-Soldotna area before the winter holidays for the Kenai River Challenge, White scored 15 points in a 33-31 win against Nikiski in their second game of the year on Dec. 20.
“They don’t like to shoot a lot from the outside, it’s mostly inside,” Nikiski junior Rachel Thompson said. “We’re trying to take away their inside game and make their outside players shoot.”
Thompson has led the team in much of the scoring this season — also averaging 13 points a game — and said finally qualifying for a state tournament is satisfying.
“It’s always been my dream,” Thompson said. “My sister Hannah went to state four years in a row, and I always saw her there, so it’s been my dream to go to the Sullivan Arena and play.”
Regarding mental preparation, Thompson added that, “Coach always wants us to shoot 10 free throws in our mind before we go to bed, so you make that ball go in.”
Thompson has proven to be effective from beyond the arc all year, but admitted she would not be as successful from 3-point land if not for her teammates’ effort at the post.
“We used to never look at our posts,” Thompson said. “Alyssa (Darch) would be down there wide open, and we would never look at her.”
Darch, a 5-foot-11 senior, is averaging 11 rebounds a game, and her improved post play has opened up other areas of the court.
“Getting rebounds, boxing out and giving my team second shots,” Darch said when asked where her biggest strength lies. “Not giving it to the other team right away.”
Complementing Darch is senior Emily Lynch, whose offseason training efforts have paid off. Lynch is averaging nearly 10 points a game herself.
“At the beginning of the season, I was contributing more with points, and then I got bolder and started covering key players most of the season,” Lynch explained.
As much of a challenge that White presents with Mt. Edgecumbe, many eyes are on the Anchorage Christian Schools girls, who have shown that they are among the favorites to win the state championship this year after coming up short against reigning champions Barrow last year.
Luckily for Nikiski, ACS is positioned opposite of the Bulldogs in the bracket, and the three team leaders believe that the Southcentral Conference title game against ACS, which they lost 69-31, was a bit of an outlier. Nikiski played ACS much closer earlier in the season, losing by only 12 points.
“I think we gave up in the second half a little bit, we came out with less energy than they did,” Lynch said. “I think we fought a lot with each other in the first half, and in the second half, we came out but we weren’t as focused.
“The first time we played them, we were the ones having fun and they were the ones kind of yelling at each other, and we only lost by 12.”
Coach Anderson, who is taking his team to state in his third year as head coach, said if his team can match the defensive pressure that Mt. Edgecumbe is sure to put up, the Bulldogs can reach their goal of playing to Saturday.
“We want to, number one, enjoy the journey,” Anderson said. “For them, especially the seniors, it’s been one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences, so we want to make sure it’s one to remember.
“Number two is to do everything we do as a team. We’re hoping to jell more as a team than we have all year, and play for each other.”
“Number three is to play hard and whatever happens is going to happen. It’s a thing where you have eight quality basketball teams, and the only thing you can control is how hard you work on defense and how well you take care of the ball. The rest is up to who shoots the ball well.”
The Seward girls start their tourney with a 5:15 p.m. matchup with ACS.
As mentioned before, the pace at which the boys teams compete will certainly present a challenge during scrimmages in practice, which is good, because the Seward girls will need all the help they can get in advance of a first-round matchup with the Lions.
“With ACS you’ve got to be on both ends of the court, and don’t turn the ball over,” Clemens said. “That team is known for pressure and transition points.”
Leading the charge for ACS is Southcentral Conference MVP Dallas Dickerson, whose size and speed presents a formidable challenge. Dickerson managed 24 points against Nikiski in the SSC championship game, even while sitting for much of the first quarter due to foul trouble, and helped ACS to a 71-37 victory over Seward six weeks ago.
“We’re going to try to contain her as well as we can,” Clemens said. “I think she’s one of the top girls in the state, 3A or 4A. She’s really smooth.
“They’re a pretty well-rounded team, and one of their main keys is tempo and transition.”
The Seahawks are traveling to the state tournament for a fourth-straight year, which Clemens attributes to an abundance of offseason work.
“We get into the gym as much as we can,” Clemens said. “We’re a school of about 170 kids, and this is a pretty competitive conference. I mean, look at Homer, they came on strong at the end there, and with ACS and Nikiski, there’s some really good teams.”
“Hopefully, after the two defeats last year, we want to go in this year and take the games, not just have them given to us.”
The two losses at last year’s state tournament certainly does not sit well with Clemens and the team, but with junior Laura Kromrey’s post play, senior Ashley VonBorstel’s shooting, and the support of Ashley Whiteshield and Kiana Clemens, the Seahawks are ready to rebound.
Even though Seward tops out at 5-foot-9 — with VonBorstel, Kromrey, Clemens and Tori Stallings reaching that mark — coach Clemens said he firmly believes in the scrappy defensive effort that his team presents.
“Dallas is going to get her points, she’s pretty tough to stop, but this defense has carried us,” he said. “We’re pretty aggressive on the boards, but all five (starters) have got to be there.”