Tired, disheveled, a bit banged up, but with joyous expressions on their faces, the Ninilchik girls basketball squad celebrated Friday night like the old days.
After seeing Cook Inlet Academy and Nikolaevsk exchange the Peninsula Conference crown the past several years, the Wolverines were beginning to wonder if they would ever see it again. The senior class had taken loss after loss in their early years, and improved squads the last two seasons fell just short of state glory.
“When we were freshman, we got our butts kicked every week,” said senior Krista Sinclair. “We were just wanting to score into the double digits of points then.”
Those days are over for these Wolverines, who are now headed back to a place they used to roam quite frequently — March Madness Alaska.
Ninilchik conquered Nikolaevsk with a 45-35 championship victory Friday night at Homer High School to claim its 15th Peninsula Conference girls crown in school history and first in seven years, snapping Nikolaevsk’s three-year stranglehold on the title and punching their first trip to state since 2010.
Nikolaevsk earned its fifth straight ticket to state Saturday with a 58-27 victory over Birchwood in the tournament second-place game.
Coincidentally, Nikolaevsk began its three-year run at the top in 2013 by beating CIA, which also had a streak of three years as conference champs.
“They’ve earned this one more than any other team I’ve seen,” said Ninilchik coach Rod Van Saun. “They’ve gone through a lot of challenges and obstacles, and they won it.
“I’ve never had a group like this one.”
The qualification to the Class 1A state tournament will be the first for the Ninilchik girls, who previously went at the 2A level. For Van Saun, it’s his third time going as a coach of the Wolverines. Ninilchik was a yearly presence at the state tournament with Alaska High School Hall of Fame coach Dan Leman at the helm, making the trip 19 years in a row until the Wolverines missed it in 2011, Van Saun’s third season as coach.
With three years of piled up losses that gradually were beginning to feature close-but-no-cigar finishes, Ninilchik’s senior core of players were not ready to pour their hearts into another Peninsula Conference tournament only to be denied a trip to state yet again.
Two years ago, Ninilchik came up just three points short of a trip to state after losing to CIA in the conference tournament second-place game. Sinclair, who was then a sophomore, said that was a key turning point in Ninilchik’s turnaround.
“Early in the year, we were never close. We were getting mercy-ruled in every game,” Sinclair recalled. “Finally, when we got that close, we didn’t want to give that up again.”
With four straight trips to the big dance under its belt, Nikolaevsk had the experience factor over Ninilchik, but the Wolverines finally had the consistent play to beat the Warriors on Friday night.
“This year, my seniors and I decided we didn’t want to have that state anymore, we want to win,” Sinclair said.
Sinclair and teammate DeeAnn White both had 12 points to lead Ninilchik to the win.
Megan Hickman scored a game-high 16 points for Nikolaevsk. Warriors coach Bea Klaich said her team suffered from cold shooting.
“We missed shots,” Klaich said. “We shot 26 percent for the game, and we usually are better than that. We also are a good free-throw shooting team, and we were (4 for 15) today.”
Early on, great offensive work by Ninilchik was being nullified by Nikolaevsk on the other end, and Hickman in particular. The crafty senior used her speed and hops to work the middle ground and delivered four buckets for the Warriors in the first quarter. Following an offensive rebound bucket by Ninilchik senior Jordan Finney, Hickman quickly turned around and hit a jump shot on the other end at the buzzer, tying the game at 12 apiece after one quarter. Serafima Kalugin gave Nikolaevsk a brief lead at the start of the second quarter with a layup, but Alanna Goins took it back for Ninilchik with a 3-pointer from the top of the arc. Later in the quarter, Sinclair grabbed a steal and delivered a layup to make the lead 17-14.
Ninilchik led 24-17 at halftime, but Nikolaevsk wouldn’t go away quietly. A layup by Hickman with 3:30 to play in the third quarter left the Warriors knocking at the Wolverines’ doorstep, as the basket cut the lead to 27-23.
However, a strong baseline drive by White a few possessions later helped put the lead back to six points, and a clutch triple by Sinclair with 35 seconds to go in the quarter left Ninilchik leading 34-26.
If the Wolverines thought they could cruise from there, they were mistaken, as Hickman and Kalugin combined to drop the lead right back to two points early in the fourth quarter. Hickman opened the final eight minutes with a jump shot off an offensive rebound, then Kalugin grabbed a steal and laid in the transition bucket to further cut the gap. Kalugin converted two foul shots with 5:45 to play in the game that left Ninilchik looking at a precarious 34-32 lead.
After Van Saun called timeout, Ninilchik seemed to get the message. Score fast. Sinclair dished an assist to Olivia Delgado, who put in the layup, and White popped in a transition layup on the next possession to give Ninilchik a 38-32 lead with 4:49 to go. With 3:37 to play, Finney got into the paint and scored to make the lead eight points, and White added another layup with 3:10 to play to stake out a 42-32 lead for the Wolverines.
A late trey by Vera Fefelov was the only bucket Nikolaevsk got in the final five minutes of play, and it was too late by then.
“We knew Ninilchik was a good team, we know they’ve been getting better every year,” Klaich said.
Van Saun praised the senior leadership of his team, with the three senior members of Sinclair, Finney and Goins combining for 27 points for Ninilchik.
“They just stayed persistent,” Van Saun said. “They willed it to happen.”
Nikolaevsk girls 58,
The Warriors wasted no time in establishing their spot at state, racing out to a 13-4 lead in the first quarter and dominating Saturday’s second-place girls game.
Nikolaevsk led 29-14 at halftime, then outscored Birchwood 14-8 in the third quarter and 15-5 in the fourth to ice the win.
Megan Hickman led the Warriors with 19 points, while Serafima Kalugin scored 12.
Birchwood Christian girls 48, Lumen Christi 36
Haley Scott poured in 33 points to lead the fourth-seeded Rams past the third-seeded Archangels in the second-place semifinals.
Peninsula Conference awards
MVP — Megan Hickman, Nikolaevsk.
Coach of Year — Bea Klaich, Nikolaevsk.
Sportsmanship — Lumen Christi.
All-Conference — Megan Hickman, Nikolaevsk; Krista Sinclair, Ninilchik; Haley Scott, Birchwood; Olivia Turner, Seldovia; Nyadeng Puoy, Lumen; Serafima Kalugin, Nikolaevsk; Marina Chissus, Seldovia; Chiamaka Lebechi, Lumen; Jordan Finley, Ninilchik; Vera Fefelov, Nikolaevsk; Alanna Goins, Ninilchik; DeeAnn White, Ninilchik.
Free throws — Haley Scott, Birchwood.
3-pointers — Vera Fefelov, Nikolaevsk.
Academic team — Olivia Turnver, Seldovia; Vera Fefelov, Nikolaevsk; Meghan Childs, Lumen; Marina Chissus, Seldovia; Abigail Carruba, Birchwood; Elesheva Tiner, Birchwood; Sophia Klaich, Nikolaevsk; Krista Sinclair, Ninilchik; Olivia Delgado, Ninilchik; Tabitha Jensen, Birchwood; Faith Buczkowski, Birchwood; Hailey Nottingham, Birchwood; KiAra Sullivan, Birchwood.
Tournament MVP — Krista Sinclair, Ninilchik.
All-tournament — Haley Scott, Birchwood; Olivia Turner, Seldovia; Megan Hickman, Nikolaevsk; Serafima Kalugin, Nikolaevsk; Nyadeng Puoy, Lumen; Maeve Bakic, Lumen; DeeAnn White, Ninilchik; Marina Chissus, Seldovia; Vera Fefelov, Nikolaevsk; Nadia Gordeev, Nikolaevsk.
Wolverines 45, Warriors 35
Ninilchik 12 12 10 11 —45
Nikolaevsk 12 5 9 9 —35
NINILCHIK (45) — Delgado 2 2-4 6, Appelhanz 0 0-0 0, Sinclair 4 2-6 12, Goins 1 6-9 9, White 5 2-3 12, Finney 2 2-2 6, Clark 0 0-0 0. Totals 14 14-24 45.
NIKOLAEVSK (35) — Klaich 0 0-0 0, Johnson 1 0-0 2, Mametieff 1 0-0 2, Fefelov 3 0-0 7, Kalugin 3 2-4 8, Gordeev 0 0-3 0, Hickman 7 2-8 16. Totals 15 4-15 35.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 3 (Sinclair 2, Goins 1); Nikolaevsk 1 (Fefelov). Team fouls — Ninilchik 13; Nikolaevsk 21. Fouled out — Hickman.
Warriors 58, Eagles 27
Nikolaevsk 13 16 14 15 —58
Birchwood 4 10 8 5 —27
NIKOLAEVSK (58) — S. Klaich 0 0-0 0, Kr. Klaich 2 0-0 4, Yakunin 2 0-0 4, Johnson 1 0-0 2, Mametieff 0 0-0 0, E. Fefelov 0 0-0 0, V. Fefelov 4 0-2 9, Kalugin 4 4-7 12, Gordeev 4 0-0 8, Gordeev 0 0-0 0, Dorvall 0 0-0 0, Hickman 8 3-4 19. Totals 25 7-13 58.
BIRCHWOOD (27) — Becker 0 0-0 0, Goward 3 0-0 6, Goward 1 0-0 2, Tiner 0 0-0 0, Sullivan 0 0-0 0, Buczkowski 0 0-0 0, Brassell 1 1-2 3, Alexander 2 0-0 4, Caruba 0 0-2 0, Scott 5 2-2 12. Totals 12 3-6 27.