Every one of the eight state championship basketball banners that hang in the Ninilchik School gymnasium were earned by the school’s girls squads.
Scooch over a bit, Dan Leman. Another banner is about to join you.
The Ninilchik boys claimed their first ever state crown Saturday with a thrilling 41-37 overtime win over fellow Peninsula Conference rivals Nikolaevsk in the Class 1A title game at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.
The Wolverines dug deep to rally from an early 13-point deficit to force overtime, where they outscored the Warriors 4-0.
“That was a battle,” said a relieved Ninilchik boys coach Nick Finley. “I don’t think it’s sunk in yet.”
Leman coached the girls team to eight state titles, including five in a row from 2000 to 2004. Leman was named Small Schools Coach of the Year on seven occasions, and was inducted into the Alaska High School Hall of Fame in 2014.
Finley said after receiving help from the sideline in the form of Leman for four years, the longtime coach stepped back this year, giving Finley the feeling that Leman decided this was the year that the boys team was destined to win it all.
“Four years ago I started with this program, and it’s finally built up this,” Finley said. “(Leman) had the confidence in me.”
Leading the charge Saturday for Ninilchik was 6-foot-8 junior Austin White, who dominated the second half and overtime with 25 points and 19 rebounds. White scored all four points in overtime and was named tournament MVP.
“It means a lot,” said White, who averaged 18 rebounds in four tournament games. “We’re making history for our school.”
White and Tyler Presley both made the all-tournament team, while Nikit Fefelov and Neil Gordeev also made the list for Nikolaevsk.
While seeing all the girls championship banners in his home gym has given White a sense of pride, the three-year starter is happy to add one of his own.
“We’re hoping this is the first of many,” White said. “There’s a lot of girls banners in our gym, so we can add this one to the other side.”
Ninilchik senior Pat Brandt — who only joined the Wolverines this year after two previous years at Galena and Houston — chipped in eight points in his final appearance as a high school player, and grabbed seven boards. Overall, Ninilchik won the battle on the glass 40-30.
“It didn’t take long to jell with the team,” Brandt said about his first season. “Everyone was so nice and it’s a good group of guys.”
Gordeev led Nikolaevsk with 14 points and six boards, while Nikit Fefelov added 10 points and Kalenik Molodih had eight boards. Fefelov, normally a deadly shooter, ended 3 for 17 from the field.
The Wolverines took home the big trophy in their second appearance in a state hoops final. Ninilchik fell in a 43-40 double overtime loss to Cook Inlet Academy in 2002.
It’s also the second straight year the 1A state champ has come from the Peninsula Conference. Seldovia picked up its maiden state title last year over Scammon Bay.
Nikolaevsk boys coach Steve Klaich felt no regrets for his team, which he said played one of their best games of the season.
“I’m very pleased with them, but our shots just weren’t falling,” Klaich said. “We knew Ninilchik would make their run.”
It was the third meeting between the two sides this year, and Ninilchik won all three by a combined 20 points. Separated by a scant 30 miles, the two teams occasionally hold open gyms with one team joining the other.
Against a familiar foe, Ninilchik had to overcome a lot to secure the big prize.
“I think the boys were a bit shellshocked after the first quarter, but they grinded it out,” Finley said.
Nikolaevsk opened with 21 first-quarter points — led by sensational 3-point shooting from Nikit Fefelov, Gordeev and Jonah Fefelov — but Ninilchik clamped down on defense to hold the Warriors to 16 points the rest of the way, including the scoreless overtime period. Gordeev had nine points in the first quarter alone.
After staking out a 21-8 lead in the first eight minutes, Ninilchik finally began to find its groove. A jumper by Brandt sparked the comeback effort, and improved rebounding continued the rally.
A free throw by Presley with 1:56 remaining in the half cut Nikolaevsk’s lead to 21-16, but a pair of shots from the charity stripe, plus a steal and a layup by Gordeev, put the lead back to 25-16 at halftime.
Ninilchik kept pressing in the early minutes of the third quarter, and by the 3:06 mark of the period had cut the gap down to three points with a booming triple from Matthew Bartolowits.
Klaich said he thought Nikolaevsk’s offense became stagnant in the second quarter, and while the intensity of his team stayed high into the third frame, his defense had increasing trouble containing White, who ramped up his rebounding.
“We zoned up against him before, but today we manned (defensively) against him and he got the ball and their 3-point shooters got us,” he said.
After Bartolowits’ triple in the third quarter, White began to take control in the paint. He scored 10 points of a 13-3 run for Ninilchik to take the lead with 1:31 left in the quarter, ensnaring an offensive rebound to knock in the layup.
White tipped back a layup on a missed shot with 4:21 left in the game to push Ninilchik’s lead to 37-33, but the Warriors weren’t done yet. Gordeev laid in a bucket and Nikit Fefelov knocked down a jumper off an offensive rebound with 2:54 left to tie it up at 37.
On the final possession, a charge up the baseline by Fefelov rolled off the rim, forcing the extra four-minute period of play.
As the game moved to overtime, Klaich was likely feeling some of the same anxiety the girls squad experienced three years ago, when they lost 43-39 in triple overtime to CIA in an all-Kenai Peninsula schools state title game.
“I didn’t think it’d be something we could hang on to,” Klaich said about the early lead.
On the opening overtime possession, White got loose in the paint and drove to the rim for a bucket and the lead. With two minutes to play, White received an assist from Presley and buried the midrange jumper to stake out a four-point lead for Ninilchik.
The last best opportunity for Nikolaevsk came with 24 seconds left, when Jonah Fefelov released a 3-pointer from the top of the arc that missed. At the final buzzer, joyous pandemonium ensued from the Ninilchik crowd.
Looking ahead, Nikolaevsk will be losing several key pieces to its offense, including seniors Neil Gordeev, Felemon Molodih and Jonah Fefelov.
Ninilchik, on the other hand, will be losing just three seniors, the lone starter being guard Pat Brandt.
“I’m confident we’ll be back for many more Marches,” Finley said.
Wolverines 41, Warriors 37, OT
Ninilchik 8 8 17 4 4 —41
Nikolae vsk 21 4 6 6 0 —37
NIKOLAEVSK (37) — K. Molodih 1 0-0 2, N. Fefelov 3 2-2 10, Gordeev 6 1-2 14, F. Molodih 2 0-0 4, J. Fefelov 3 0-0 7, Kalugin 0 0-0 0. Totals 15 3-4 37.
NINILCHIK (41) — Presley 2 1-2 5, Koch 0 0-0 0, Geppert 0 0-0 0, Brandt 4 0-1 8, Bartolowits 1 0-0 3, Mumey 0 0-0 0, White 12 1-2 25. Totals 19 2-5 41.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 4 (N. Fefelov 2, Gordeev 1, J. Fefelov 1); Ninilchik 1 (Bartolowits).