The Ninilchik boys announced their return to the Class 1A state prep basketball championship final with a commanding 72-49 semifinal victory Friday night over Buckland at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
Senior Austin White took charge of the court with 20 points, 23 rebounds and seven blocks, making use of his 6-foot-8 frame to bring down missed shots and draw fouls on the same court that the University of Alaska Anchorage recruit will call his home next season. White was a perfect 8 for 8 from the free-throw line.
“We were just trying to push out, play loose and relaxed,” White said. “This is a 1A team, but we’ve played better competition than these guys.”
The rest of the senior class also stepped up, with point guard Tyler Presley notching a double-double of 22 points and 11 boards, Dalton Geppert posting 15 points and Matt Bartolowits chipping in eight points.
Ninilchik controlled the glass with a 49-25 advantage in rebounding. The Wolverines also drained 14 of 15 free throws.
“I never dreamed we’d be able to win a state championship, and now we get to try it again,” Presley said.
The Wolverines draw Gambell in the championship. Gambell dispatched Newhalen in Friday’s other semifinal 56-51.
Two straight days of tight, tense games had left the Wolverines looking mortal after a season of domination at the 1A level. Ninilchik’s closest victory in the regular season had been 19 points, but the team won its first two state contests by a combined 13 points.
It led Ninilchik head coach Nick Finley to send a message to his team.
“Our pregame talk was just go out, play and have fun,” Finley said. “I’ve coached some of these guys since sixth grade, and if we lose this game, oh well.
“But if we go out and play our game and stay loose, there’s a high percentage that we’ll win.”
Ninilchik was off and running right from the opening tip, scoring the game’s first 10 points and staking out a 20-point lead by the early stages of the second quarter.
By halftime, the Wolverines were in control with a 39-20 lead. Ninilchik had already recorded 28 rebounds to Buckland’s 10, and White had a double-double at the half with 16 points and 15 boards.
Even as the Sissuani attempted a fourth-quarter comeback with a 24-7 run, the mountain was simply too big to climb.
“This is the most complete team we’ve had,” Presley said. “We’ve grown up together and played together since sixth grade.”
With an array of quick, agile guards surrounding him, White said the only thing that could possibly make Ninilchik a super team would be another big man.
“Other than that, this team is pretty complete,” White said.
After pushing its lead to scores of 23-4 after one quarter and 30-6 by the 6:21 mark of the second, Ninilchik continued to mash the gas, getting tipbacks by White and backdoor layups from Bartolowits and Garrett Koch.
Buckland’s Martin Hadley, who finished with a team-high 16 points, opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, but Ninilchik scored six straight points on foul shots and a fast break layup. Consecutive triples by Presley and Geppert sparked a 13-0 run in the quarter that resulted in a 58-25 lead with two minutes to play in the third.
Hydaburg boys 52, Nikolaevsk 51
A fourth-quarter rally came up empty as the Warriors boys season ended Friday afternoon at the Alaska Airlines Center.
After knocking off the third-seeded Noatak Lynx on Wednesday, the Warriors dropped two consecutive games to unseeded Newhalen and No. 2 Hydaburg.
For senior Nikit Fefelov, the moment was bittersweet. After helping Nikolaevsk get to the 2016 Class 1A championship game, Fefelov was one of just two returning starters this year, which he said fueled the belief that the Warriors were expected to be “a ragtag bunch.”
“We had to match that (last year),” Fefelov said. “Especially the doubters, I think we showed them this year.”
Fefelov broke out of a cold shooting slump Friday with a barrage of 3-pointers in the second half. Fefelov led the Warriors with 19 points, and went 5-for-7 from beyond the arc in the second half after an 0-for-7 showing in the first half.
“I don’t know what was going on,” he said about his scoring slump. “Sometimes even the best have shooting slumps, and this was the worst time to have it.”
Fefelov said the turnaround in Friday’s game came after a moment of reflection at halftime.
“If you don’t win, you’re done forever, and it kind of hit me in the locker room,” Fefelov said. “If I don’t play like I play, then my season’s over.”
Nikolaevsk head coach Steve Klaich said the first three quarters reminded him of Thursday’s loss to Newhalen, a game that Klaich described as a flat performance.
“Their big kid hurt us inside in this game too,” Klaich said, referring to Hydaburg’s Mike Eaglestaff, a 6-foot-5 forward that blasted Nikolaevsk with 25 points on 11-for-16 shooting inside the arc, as well as eight rebounds.
Nikolaevsk junior Kalenik Molodih racked up a double-double of 10 points and 14 rebounds and Anfim Kalugin controlled the paint with 11 points and nine boards. Michael Trail grabbed nine rebounds as well.
The Warriors won the overall rebounding battle 38-31, but it was two costly rebounds in the final minutes that hurt Nikolaevsk the most. Fefelov buried a trey with 2:08 left that gave Nikolaevsk a 49-48 lead, which completed a 20-6 run that lifted the Warriors from a 13-point fourth-quarter deficit.
“We started playing with energy and aggression,” Klaich explained. “Nikit started hitting shots and we made some good defensive stops.”
Hydaburg, however, regained the lead after corralling a defensive rebound and scoring in transition with 1:28 to go on a layup by Eaglestaff. Trever Olsen pushed the lead to three points on a rebound and putback bucket with 53 seconds left.
Molodih laid in a baseline attempt with 28 seconds left to close the gap to one point, but the Warriors couldn’t get the foul they wanted in the final seconds that would have at least given them a chance to tie it.
To cap the season, Klaich echoed Fefelov’s thoughts in that the Warriors proved they were back to make another run at a state tournament that looked to be unreachable in November.
“We knocked off the third seed and played the two seed to one point,” he said. “We made a lot of progress from the beginning of the season, and I’m very proud of how the boys played and competed.”
Wolverines 72, Sissuani 49
Ninilchik 23 16 21 12 — 72
Buckland 4 16 11 18 — 49
NINILCHIK (72) — Presley 8 3-3 22, Koch 2 0-0 4, Geppert 6 0-1 15, Bartolowits 2 3-3 8, Mumey 1 0-0 3, White 6 8-8 20. Totals 25 14-15 72.
BUCKLAND (49) — Jones 5 0-0 11, J. Hadley 1 0-0 2, P. Hadley 3 0-0 9, L. Hadley 2 0-0 4, L. Hadley 1 0-0 2, Armstrong 2 1-2 5, M. Hadley 5 4-4 16, Kirk 0 0-0 0, Armstrong 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 5-6 49.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 8 (Presley 3, Geppert 3, Bartolowits 1, Mumey 1); Buckland 6 (P. Hadley 3, M. Hadley 2, Jones 1).
Team fouls — Ninilchik 16; Buckland 13. Fouled out — none.
Warriors 52, Warriors 51
Nikolaevsk 8 6 15 22 — 51
Hydaburg 8 10 20 14 — 52
NIKOLAEVSK (51) — Molodih 4 2-3 10, Jones 0 0-0 0, Yakunin 0 0-0 0, Fefelov 6 2-4 19, Z. Trail 1 0-0 2, M. Trail 4 1-2 9, Kalugin 5 1-1 11. Totals 20 6-10 51.
HYDABURG (52) — Nix 0 0-0 0, Tolson 4 1-2 9, Olsen 3 0-0 7, Eaglestaff 12 0-1 25, Warren-Edenshaw 0 0-0 0, Trout 2 1-2 5, Miramontez 2 0-0 6. Totals 23 2-5 52.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 5 (Fefelov 5); Hydaburg 4 (Miramontez 2, Olsen 1, Eaglestaff 1).