After knocking off the No. 2 seeded team at the Class 1A state tournament for a second consecutive year, Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich found the perfect words to describe the feat.
“It wasn’t a ‘Kake’ walk,” Klaich quipped.
Indeed, the Warriors had to buckle down in the final minute and play tough defense Wednesday night to knock off the Kake Thunderbirds 46-43 at the Alaska Airlines Center.
The victory advanced the Warriors to the 1A boys championship bracket, starting with a 9:30 a.m. quarterfinal matchup today against the Nunamiut Amaguqa of Anaktuvak Pass.
Nikolaevsk and Nunamiut have already met this year in a Jan. 27 clash at the annual Warrior Rumble in Nikolaevsk. Nunamiut got the 54-38 win, setting the precedent for today’s quarterfinal meeting.
Kake entered the state tourney as one of the four seeded teams, out of 16 total, while Nikolaevsk came in unseeded after finishing second in the Peninsula Conference tournament 10 days earlier. But the Warriors had been in that situation before. Last year’s state tournament saw Nikolaevsk knock off the second-seeded Noatak Lynx on the first day’s slate of play-in games. Senior guard Kalenik Molodih knew the feeling and said it depends most on which team is peaking.
“This year we’ve improved a lot more, and a couple players have made us better,” Molodih said. “This is our climax.”
Molodih led the Warriors Wednesday with 12 points and seven rebounds, while teammate J.D. Mumey pumped in 12 points on four 3-pointers and Michael Trail grabbed 10 boards to go along with eight points. Klaich was most pleased with the team’s 11 turnovers, among the fewest this year for the Warriors.
“It’s much better than early in the year for us,” he said. “This was much more rewarding.”
Simon Friday proved to be one of several thorns in Nikolaevsk’s side, as the senior guard from Kake scored a game-high 13 points and had 12 rebounds. Also for Kake, Shawn Merry notched 11 points and Bryce Knudsen had 10.
Klaich said Molodih and Sage Stanish both defended well on Friday, especially in the second half. Friday connected on just 1 of 8 shots from beyond the arc.
“The defense is where I put the credit on,” he said.
Nikolaevsk led 21-20 at halftime, but it was a third-quarter surge of scoring that helped set the Warriors up for their late defensive effort. Mumey in particular found a nice stroke from the 3-point line, hitting three triples in the quarter. Mumey was joined by Kosta Nikitenko in finding the netting from long range, as Nikolaevsk went on a 16-7 run to grab a 37-29 lead late in the third.
However, the Thunderbirds made sure to stay close by closing the third quarter on a quick 6-0 spurt to make it a two-point game entering the fourth. The run was part of a bigger 13-0 surge by Kake that saw it take a 42-37 lead with 5:01 left in the game. Friday scored six points himself.
Finally, Nikolaevsk returned to life and retook the lead on a baseline layup from Stanish with 1:41 left in the game. Molodih added a long jumper with 1:04 to go to give Niko a 46-42 gap.
Molodih had two chances to ice the game on free throws in the final minute, but missed both. The Warriors got back on defense both times to fend off Kake’s desperation heaves.
After experiencing an overtime loss to Ninilchik in the 1A championship final two years ago, Molodih has become familiar with the bright lights of the big dance, and credited the team’s five-year run of runner-up finishes at the region tournament for Nikolaevsk’s success.
“We’ve had the mentality of working hard,” he explained.
Warriors 46, Thunderbirds 43
Kake 12 8 15 8 —43
Nikolaevsk 14 7 16 9 —46
KAKE (43) — Merry 5 0-0 11, Friday 5 2-4 13, Davis 3 0-0 7, Knudsen 4 1-2 10, Ashenfelter 0 0-0 0, Hanson 1 0-0 2, Crookes 0 0-0 0. Totals 18 3-6 43.
NIKOLAEVSK (46) — Molodih 4 3-8 12, Stanish 2 0-0 4, Kalugin 0 0-0 0, Nikitenko 3 0-0 8, Mumey 4 0-0 12, Z. Trail 1 0-1 2, M. Trail 4 0-2 8. Totals 18 3-11 46.