The experience of four straight state tournament runs left the Nikolaevsk girls basketball team in a good spot Wednesday at the Alaska Airlines Arena in Anchorage.
Making their fifth consecutive appearance at the Class 1A March Madness state tournament, the Warriors used experience to survive a 46-42 victory over the Newhalen Malamutes in the first round.
“I knew they knew what to do in that situation,” said Nikolaevsk head coach Bea Klaich. “We practice these games all the time and I have faith in them.”
The victory puts Nikolaevsk into the winner’s bracket, which starts Thursday with a 1:30 p.m. quarterfinal matchup against the Buckland Sissauni.
If the matchup sounds familiar, it’s because it is. Nikolaevsk lost to Buckland in a narrow 43-42 upset at the state tournament two years ago.
But as seasoned pros of the sport, Wednesday’s contest had the Warriors feeling right in their wheelhouse.
“It was a little scary, definitely nerve-wracking after what we’ve been through,” said Nikolaevsk senior Megan Hickman.
Hickman and senior teammate Serafima Kalugin have been a part of five state appearances with Nikolaevsk, starting as eighth-graders in 2012. As freshman in 2013, the duo helped the Warriors to the girls championship finale, only to lose 43-39 in triple overtime to Cook Inlet Academy.
The loss to Buckland the following year as sophomores only added to the heartbreak, but it left Hickman and Kalugin as hardened veterans of the team.
“(2012) seems like a long time ago,” Hickman said. “We’ve put in a lot of hours at the gym and it’s paid off.”
Wednesday against Newhalen, Hickman led the Warriors with 17 points on 7-for-13 shooting, while Kalugin added 11 points, eight rebounds and six steals.
Chelsea Johnson grabbed nine boards for Nikolaevsk, and played a role in the go-ahead bucket. Johnson brought down a defensive rebound and quickly ran down the court, eyed Hickman on the run and dished her the ball for the layup with 2:32 to play, giving the Warriors a 44-42 lead.
In the final minute of action, Nikolaevsk did all it could to hold possession of the ball and drain the clock, an all-too-familiar strategy that the CIA Eagles put into play against the Warriors three years ago in that ultra-close title clash.
“CIA did it to us, so we knew how to do it,” Klaich said. “We just had to move the ball and shoot if we had a good look. I trust the ballhandling of our team.”
Early in the game, Nikolaevsk was rolling as it took a 19-9 lead after one quarter, but the Malamutes struck back by outscoring the Warriors 17-11 in the second and cutting the gap to 30-26 by halftime.
By the end of the third quarter, Nikolaevsk’s lead was just 36-35.
“It was an ugly game offensively for us, but I say it was the first-game jitters,” Klaich said.
A trey by Rhiannon Nanalook with 5:29 remaining put Newhalen up 42-36. Nanalook ended with a game-high 23 points.
From there, the Warriors clamped down on defense and clawed their way back, getting buckets from Hickman and Kalugin to tie it up with 2:49 to play and setting up the winning sequence.
Aniak girls 34, Ninilchik 32
In their first state appearance in six years, the Wolverines girls team lost in a thrilling finish to the Aniak Halfbreeds.
Three 3-point attempts in Ninilchik’s final 27-second possession missed, the last one falling at the buzzer to deny Ninilchik the win.
“That’s what happens when you’ve never been to state,” said Ninilchik head coach Rod Van Saun. “We got good looks but they didn’t fall for us.”
The loss leaves the Wolverines in a 7:15 p.m. matchup today in the consolation bracket with Huslia, which lost 61-49 to Shishmaref earlier in the day.
After pulling itself back into the game with a 13-3 third quarter run, Ninilchik was outscored 14-8 in the final eight minutes. A layup by Kayla Morgan with 3:04 left in the game put Aniak up 34-30. Morgan led Aniak with 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
However, Ninilchik freshman DeeAnn White was fouled and found herself at the free throw line with 2:51 to go, hitting both shots to close the deficit to two points.
In the final minute, White missed all four attempts on two occasions from the foul line.
During the final bombardment of 3s, Aniak coach Wayne Morgan had just one thought.
“I was going, no, no and no for those shots,” Morgan said. “I’m just glad the last girl was standing a little farther out from the 3-point line. It looked like the NBA line.”
White finished with 13 points to lead the Wolverines, including going 7 for 12 on free throws.
“DeeAnn laid her heart out there,” Van Saun said. “It’s tough to be a freshman in her role, being a starter and her first year at state.”
Ninilchik senior Jordan Finney pulled down 14 rebounds to go with nine points, and fellow senior Alanna Goins added six points.
Ninilchik found itself down 7-2 in the early minutes, and by the end of the first quarter, Aniak had staked out a 12-4 lead.
At halftime, the Halfbreeds held a 17-11 lead, thanks to a meager 18 percent shooting performance by Ninilchik.
Warriors 46, Malamutes 42
Nikolaevsk 19 11 6 10 —46
Newhalen 9 17 9 7 —42
NIKOLAEVSK (46) — Kr. Klaich 0 0-0 0, Johnson 1 2-2 4, Mametieff 1 2-2 4, E. Fefelov 0 0-0 0, V. Fefelov 4 0-0 8, Kalugin 4 3-6 11, N. Gordeev 1 0-0 2, Hickman 7 3-5 17. Totals 18 10-15 46.
NEWHALEN (42) — Ishnook 5 0-0 12, Anelon 0 0-0 0, Paine 0 3-9 3, Nanalook 7 7-11 23, Wassillie 2 0-0 4, Anelon 0 0-0 0. Totals 14 10-21 42.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 0; Newhalen 4 (Nanalook 2, Ishnook 2).
Team fouls — Nikolaevsk 16; Newhalen 17. Fouled out — Ishnook, Paine.
Halfbreeds 34, Wolverines 32
Ninilchik 4 7 13 8 —34
Aniak 12 5 3 14 —32
NINILCHIK (32) — Delgado 0 0-2 0, Sinclair 1 2-6 4, Goins 2 2-2 6, White 3 7-12 13, Finney 4 1-4 9, Clark 0 0-0 0. Totals 10 12-26 32.
ANIAK (34) — Morgan 1 0-0 2, Morgan 0 0-0 0, Peterson 0 0-0 0, Hoeldt 1 0-0 2, Peterson 3 0-1 9, Wolf 3 1-1 7, Peterson 0 0-0 0, Phillips 0 0-0 0, Morgan 6 1-3 14. Totals 14 2-5 34.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 0; Aniak 4 (Peterson 3, Morgan 1).
Team fouls — Ninilchik 11; Aniak 21. Fouled out — Sinclair, Morgan.