As the defending Class 1A state champions, the Ninilchik boys know the name of the game. Survive and advance.
The No. 1 seeded Wolverines did just that Thursday afternoon at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, escaping with a 57-54 victory over upset-minded Shaktoolik to grab a spot in the state semifinals. Ninilchik will face Buckland today at 7 p.m. for a chance to return to Saturday’s championship finale.
On the heels of a regular season run that saw Ninilchik win 1A games by an average of 55 points, both the Wolverines’ state tournament contests have been close. In Wednesday’s opening round, Ninilchik topped Aniak 51-41, and it got even tighter on Thursday.
Against a shorter Shaktoolik squad, the Wolverines had to make all the stops to cool their opponents red-hot shooters.
“We all know that everybody’s going to give us their best game,” said Ninilchik head coach Nick Finley.
“We have a massive target on our back,” added senior point guard Tyler Presley, who led Ninilchik with 21 points. “That just fuels the fire and makes us want it even more.”
Austin White racked up a double-double for a second consecutive day with 16 points and 18 rebounds, and went 8-for-12 from the free-throw line.
After 5-foot-11 center Josh Takak, Shaktoolik’s next tallest player stands at 5-9. Meanwhile, Ninilchik has three players above six feet, topped out by 6-8 White.
5-foot-6 senior Everson Paniptchuk nailed five 3-pointers to lead Shaktoolik with a game-high 34 points. Paniptchuk also went 9-of-17 from inside the arc.
Shaktoolik’s smaller size and scrappiness also pressured the Wolverines into 12 turnovers, leading to fast-break points that propelled Shaktoolik to a 14-2 third-quarter run.
Shaktoolik hit more buckets than Ninilchik, but only manned the free-throw line for five attempts. Ninilchik took 24 foul shots, making 17 of them. Presley went 8-for-10 himself from the foul line.
In the final 1:20 of the game, White and Presley combined to hit 3 of 4 free throws to distance themselves to a two-possession contest. As defending state champs, Presley said the late drama came with the territory.
“It wasn’t super nerve-wracking,” Presley said.
Presley pointed out Ninilchik’s close shave last year in a four-point semifinal win over Anaktuvuk Pass, which featured a similarly small lineup.
“We’ve been here before,” he said. “It’s their kryptonite to our big man.”
Ninilchik led 32-20 at halftime, then pushed its lead to 41-26 by the midpoint of the third quarter, but Shaktoolik turned up the wick on defense. Paniptchuk scored 10 of Shaktoolik’s points in a 14-2 run that closed the gap to 43-40 with 1:07 left in the third quarter.
Ninilchik hit several free throws to bump the lead back up to 48-40 early in the fourth quarter, but a corner 3 by Matthew Jackson sparked another run that kept Ninilchik honest.
White put down a one-handed dunk with 2:38 left to put Ninilchik up 54-47, but Shaktoolik kept the momentum on its side with a jumper from Paniptchuk and a block and jump shot by Jackson on the other end that closed the gap to 54-51 with 1:39 to go.
From there, Shaktoolik began fouling, leading to three free throws from White and Presley to forge a six-point lead. A rebound by White helped Ninilchik with 35 seconds on the clock, and a turnover by Paniptchuk essentially sealed the win with 16 seconds to go.
Newhalen boys 52, Nikolaevsk 40
The Warriors saw their state championship hopes fizzle out Thursday night with a loss to the Malamutes.
Dogged by turnovers and missed opportunities, Nikolaevsk got behind early in the state quarterfinal and couldn’t quite make up the deficit.
“It didn’t look like my team,” said Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich. “They weren’t getting rebounds, the defense was soft and they had uncharacteristic turnovers.”
Nikolaevsk suffered 20 turnovers as a team, while Newhalen was able to hang on with seven. The Warriors made it to the championship finale last year, but will not return after making a fourth straight state appearance.
A consolation matchup with Hydaburg awaits the Warriors today at 12:30 p.m., with the winner advancing to Saturday’s fourth-place contest.
Josh Clark notched a double-double for Newhalen with 20 points and 11 boards, hitting 6 of 6 free throws along the way.
Kalenik Molodih reached double figures for Nikolaevsk with 12 points and 13 rebounds, but the Warriors’ senior weapon, Nikit Fefelov, struggled with just three points on 1-for-9 shooting, including nothing from beyond the arc.
“We just needed to execute,” Klaich said. “They were putting a lot of pressure on (Fefelov) and he was over-dribbling and tried to take it all on himself.”
Fefelov had played the hero role a day earlier with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer over Noatak that won the game for Nikolaevsk.
Klaich added that after watching Newhalen play Wednesday in a victory over Anaktuvuk Pass, he overlooked the effectiveness of Clark, whose 6-foot-4 frame wracked havoc on Nikolaevsk’s inside defense.
“He had a phenomenal game,” Klaich admitted.
Douglas Kalmbacher also gave the Warriors fits with a string of agile plays. Kalmbacher finished with nine points, seven rebounds and three steals.
It took just five seconds for Newhalen to open the scoring, starting with a corner 3 from Paul Clay. Two more treys from Kalmbacher and Jared Paine brought the lead to 11-5 early in the second quarter. Paine finished with 11 points.
Zachary Trail was the benefactor of the defensive attention paid to Fefelov and Molodih, knocking down several floaters in the first half to keep Nikolaevsk within striking distance, but two 3s by Matthew Tretikoff pushed the lead back out to 19-11. Newhalen reached the halftime break up 25-14.
A floater by Michael Trail with four minutes left in the third quarter cut Newhalen’s lead to 35-23, but a steal by Paine a few possessions later kickstarted an 8-0 run that put Nikolaevsk into a 20-point hole entering the fourth quarter.
Klaich said the new goal after Thursday was to run the table and seize fourth-place honors, but it does not ease the sting of Thursday’s loss.
“In a lot of ways I’m puzzled,” Klaich said. “But to be within 12 (points) as poorly as we played, it makes me believe it could’ve been the other way.”
Wolverines 57, Wolverines 54
Ninilchik 18 14 13 12 — 57
Shaktoolik 9 11 20 14 — 54
NINILCHIK (57) — Presley 6 8-10 21, Koch 0 0-0 0, Geppert 2 0-0 5, Clark 0 0-0 0, Bartolowits 3 1-2 7, Mumey 3 0-0 8, White 4 8-12 16. Totals 18 17-24 57.
SHAKTOOLIK (54) — Savetilik 2 0-0 5, Takak 0 1-2 1, Savatilik 1 0-0 2, Jackson 2 0-0 5, Evan 3 0-0 7, Paniptchuk 14 1-3 34, Sampson 0 0-0 0. Totals 22 2-5 54.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 4 (Mumey 2, Presley 1, Geppert 1); Shaktoolik 8 (Paniptchuk 5, Savetilik 1, Jackson 1, Evan 1).
Team fouls — Ninilchik 8; Shaktoolik 18. Fouled out — none.
Malamutes 52, Warriors 40
Nikolaevsk 5 9 9 17 — 40
Newhalen 8 17 18 9 — 52
NIKOLAEVSK (40) — Molodih 5 1-2 12, Jones 0 0-0 0, Yakunin 0 0-0 0, Fefelov 1 1-2 3, Nikitenko 2 0-0 6, Z. Trail 3 0-0 7, M. Trail 5 0-1 10, Kalugin 1 0-2 2. Totals 17 2-7 40.
NEWHALEN (52) — Hill 0 0-0 0, Paine 5 0-0 11, Tretikoff 2 0-0 6, Kalmbacher 4 0-0 9, Wassillie 0 0-0 0, Ishnook 0 0-0 0, Clay 2 0-0 5, Joseph 0 0-0 0, Clark 7 6-6 20. Totals 20 7-7 52.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 4 (Nikitenko 2, Molodih 1, Z. Trail 1); Newhalen 5 (Tretikoff 2, Paine 1, Kalmbacher 1, Clay 1).