Part of the excitement that is March Madness Alaska is the suspense of early upsets. In their sixth straight appearance at the Class 1A state basketball tournament, the Nikolaevsk girls are familiar with that.
The 2013-14 Nikolaevsk girls squad was one of the many strong teams that have been toppled on the opening day, and as newly crowned Peninsula Conference champs, the 2016-17 Warriors did not want a repeat of that.
Nikolaevsk got its state tournament off to a positive start Wednesday with a 40-35 win over the Nunamiut Amaguqs at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, leaving the Warriors in a date with third-seeded King Cove today at 9:30 a.m.
Led by senior Vera Fefelov’s double-double of 11 points and 11 boards, Nikolaevsk got big contributions from its supporting cast. Warriors head coach Bea Klaich praised her freshmen guards, who scored 27 combined points for Nikolaevsk.
“This is a young team, and winning this game isn’t a given,” Klaich said. “We had to claw through it.”
Freshmen Markiana Yakunin and Justina Fefelov scored 12 points each, while Elizabeth Fefelov had three points and 10 rebounds.
“Justina is our secret weapon,” Klaich said. “I told (Yakunin and Fefelov) that they supported Vera, they were getting double-teamed in the post.”
Vera Fefelov alluded to the Warriors’ ball pressure as a key factor in their win, but said the team is taking a focused approach in their pursuit of a state crown.
“That was the first thing we were focusing on, gotta get through that first game,” Fefelov said. “It kept us on our toes.”
Nikolaevsk had to overcome a sluggish start to take the victory. Nunamiut staked out an 8-2 lead in the opening seven minutes before the Warriors came alive with a 13-0 run over a span of 2 minutes, 30 seconds.
King Cove and Nikolaevsk met earlier this season in a 50-47 win for King Cove on Jan. 21, a contest that helped turn the tide for the Warriors.
After taking a 15-8 lead early in the second quarter, Nikolaevsk held on to lead 17-16 at halftime, thanks to several timely buckets from Nunamiut’s Jamie Ahgook. Nikolaevsk ended the first half with a 26-17 rebounding advantage.
Vera Fefelov sparked Nikolaevsk with a triple 60 seconds into the third quarter, helping the Warriors build a 23-18 edge, but a 3-pointer by Monique Ekak capped an 11-5 run that gave Nunamiut a brief 29-28 lead with 1:57 left in the third quarter.
The Amaguqs took a 35-32 lead with 3:47 to play, but a layup by Justina Fefelov cut the gap to one, and a jumper from Vera Fefelov put Nikolaevsk ahead for good with 2:45 to play. Yakunin iced the game with 1:44 left on a banked 3-pointer off the glass.
Ninilchik girls 33, Kake 30
The Wolverines girls had to fight through nerves and a double-digit deficit to win their first-round game and advance to the state championship bracket Wednesday morning at the Alaska Airlines Center.
Ninilchik will face top-seeded Scammon Bay today at 3:30 p.m. in a tough quarterfinal matchup. Scammon Bay, the defending Class 1A state champions, routed Ninilchik 71-24 in January.
Ninilchik used a gutsy second-half surge to take down the Kake Thunderbirds. The Wolverines trailed 19-6 at halftime, but exploded with a 12-0 run in the first 4 1-2 minutes of the third quarter to cut Kake’s lead to one, then held Kake scoreless in the final five minutes of the game to notch the victory.
“Once we got past regions, our number one goal was to win at state,” said Ninilchik head coach Josh Demlow. “We can’t be satisfied with just being here.”
After losing on the first day last year, the win put Ninilchik one step closer to its ultimate goal of a state crown, but the Wolverines will have to figure out how to get through an undefeated Scammon Bay girls team.
Sophomore DeeAnn White notched a double-double of 18 points and 12 rebounds to lead Ninilchik after scoring just two in the first half. The tall, lanky White racked up three fouls in the opening minutes of the game and was confined to the bench for all but three minutes of the first half. White’s absence was felt on the court, as Kake was able to build a lead with separate 8-0 runs.
“It was tough,” White said about having to sit. “I felt like I was watching my team fall apart. I felt like they were freaking out a bit.”
With White off the floor, the Thunderbirds found more space in the paint to do their work. Jacqueline Bennum scored 15 points to lead Kake’s effort, including 11 of her team’s first 13 points. Bennum dominated early with 13 points in the first half, but fouled out late in the game.
The first-half dominance showed as Kake racked up 29 field goal attempts, compared to Ninilchik’s cold 1-for-15 shooting.
Demlow said he believed White was simply trying to do too much and overplayed her abilities.
“They were not smart fouls,” he said.
Once White returned with her teammates in the second half, the Wolverines were able to explode, grabbing several turnovers to keep the ball on the offensive end and using White’s post presence to quickly erase the 13-point gap. It took just 2 minutes, 12 seconds, to cut Kake’s lead to 19-14. White and Delgado combined for the first 10 points of the second half.
Having to tiptoe the fine line of playing aggressive and not fouling, White held steady.
“I just had to watch my footing,” she said. “I was more focused on playing the help side of the ball, and getting it to my teammates.”
Once Kake found its footing, the Thunderbirds were able to reclaim the lead that Ninilchik briefly held. A 3-pointer by Willow Jackson put Kake ahead 30-25 with five minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
Bennum fouled out with 2:23 to play and her team ahead 30-27, and Ninilchik pressed inside to make up the deficit. White missed two free throws with 38 seconds left, and after getting fouled on the ensuing rebound, Mikayla Clark hit 1 of 2 to close the gap to two.
After a missed foul shot by Jackson on the other end, White grabbed the rebound and dished it to Clark, who was fouled. Clark hit her first free throw to cut Kake’s lead to 30-29, and White grabbed the rebound on the second shot to lay in the go-ahead bucket with 18 seconds left.
A crucial mistake by Kake then helped Ninilchik seal the win. A step out-of-bounds while moving up the court gave the ball over to the Wolverines, who then scored on the inbounds pass to White, putting Ninilchik up by 3.
Wolverines 33, Thunderbirds 30
Ninilchik 4 2 16 11 — 33
Kake 7 12 4 7 — 30
NINILCHIK (33) — Delgado 4 0-4 8, Kain 0 0-2 0, Kreger 0 0-0 0, Johnson 0 0-0 0, White 8 2-6 18, Cooper 0 0-0 0, Clark 1 5-8 7. Totals 13 7-20 33.
KAKE (30) — Jackson 2 0-4 5, Bennum 5 5-5 15, James 2 0-0 4, Beer 3 0-1 6, McMahan 0 0-0 0. Totals 12 5-10 30.
3-point goals — Ninilchik 0; Kake 1 (Jackson).
Team fouls – Ninilchik 15; Kake 15. Fouled out — Bennum, Johnson.
Warriors 40, Amaguqs 35
Nikolaevsk 7 10 15 8 — 40
Nunamiut 8 8 13 6 — 35
NIKOLAEVSK (40) — Klaich 0 2-6 2, Yakunin 5 0-0 12, J. Fefelov 5 1-2 12, Johnson 0 0-2 0, E. Fefelov 1 1-2 3, V. Fefelov 4 0-5 11. Totals 15 4-17 40.
NUNAMIUT (35) — Kakinya 4 0-0 9, Ekak 0 0-0 0, Fry 0 0-0 0, Morry 2 3-4 7, Ahgook 3 0-0 6, Ekak 1 0-0 2, Mekiana 2 0-0 6, Fry 2 1-2 5. Totals 14 4-6 35.
3-point goals — Nikolaevsk 6 (V. Fefelov 3, Yakunin 2, J. Fefelov 1); Nunamiut 3 (Mekiana 2, Kakinya 1).