Whether it was the hot air inside the gym at Kenai Central High School, or the rabid Kardinals defense, something was stifling the Soldotna girls Thursday night in the first round of the Northern Lights Conference tournament.
Led by a suffocating defense, Kenai knocked out NLC rival Soldotna with a 37-28 win on Cliff Massie court, leaving the Stars without a chance at a state berth, and Kenai controlling its destiny in today’s semifinals.
“It’s huge on so many levels,” said Kenai coach Stacia Rustad. “To have lost to them already is part of it, but just to make it to the semifinals while we’re hosting the tournament.”
The win pushed the Kards to a semifinal matchup today with the top-seeded Wasilla Warriors at 6:45 p.m.
“Being able to play Wasilla, (coach) Jeannie (Hebert-Truax) is a good friend of mine,” Rustad said. “I have no qualms with playing Wasilla, even though they’re the number one team. We’re just looking forward to the opportunity.”
Junior Alli Steinbeck paved the way for the Kenai offense, scoring 11 points, including nine in the second half. Kenai sophomore Abby Beck added nine points as well, and Hannah Drury netted seven.
Soldotna senior Hayley Ramsell scored a game-high 13 points, and went 5-for-11 from the free-throw line.
SoHi won its two regular-season matchups against Kenai, but the opportunistic defense of the Kardinals helped its offense in the first quarter, as Soldotna did not make a field goal in the first quarter and ended with only one point. However, Ramsell began dropping in buckets early in the second quarter to close the gap for SoHi.
Kenai allowed only 10 points from Soldotna in the first half to take a five-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
“We shot the ball fairly decently, but by far our defense was much better than last Saturday,” Rustad said. “That’s a pretty solid defensive effort, that’s where it started and where it ended.”
Steinbeck caught fire for a stretch in the third quarter, knocking in a trio of shots to give Kenai a 24-13 lead with 2:19 remaining in the quarter.
SoHi’s big guns, namely seniors Haley Miller and Ramsell, found difficulties getting space to shoot, but Kenai began to foul Ramsell, putting her to the free throw line four times in the last three minutes of the third quarter. Ramsell converted 4-of-8 in that span.
Once desperation began to inevitably creep in in the fourth quarter, the Stars found an increasingly difficult half-court press from Kenai. Nevertheless, Miller and Ramsell continued attacking the rim, but when Beck’s long-range jumper with 2:09 left in the game left Kenai leading 34-21 and the home crowd in a frenzy, reality began to set it.
“We were a little more patient, waiting for easier baskets, rather than taking the first shot available,” Rustad said about the second half offensive spurt.
While Kenai advances to the semis, SoHi will get to face Palmer today at 11:45 a.m. in a consolation game.
In the other quarterfinal Thursday, the Kodiak girls finished off Palmer 35-30 to advance to a semifinal meeting with second-seeded Colony on Friday.
Soldotna boys 61, Kenai 56
Soldotna held off a pesky Kenai squad in the waning minutes to set up a semifinal clash against the second-seeded Colony Knights today at 5 p.m.
After a game that saw four players foul out, Kenai was relegated to a Friday consolation game with Kodiak at 10 a.m.
Soldotna coach Mark Tuter said he was pleased to see several different players have big games when it counted the most, specifically on the rebounding end.
“We kind of came up with a little newer offense to help us get in rebounding position, and it helped,” Tuter said.
After starting 0-for-4 from the free throw line, senior Brooks Furlong finished strong with three straight successful attempts in the final 42 seconds to push it to a three-possession game and ice the win. Furlong ended with 14 points overall, including a trio of 3’s.
“It just comes down to focusing and taking your time,” Furlong said. “We have a six-point lead, nothing to get worried about.”
Looking ahead to today’s semifinal matchup, Furlong said the Stars realize the depth and talent of the Knights, but as the 3-seed the Stars have nothing to lose.
“They obviously have their star in Bailey West,” Furlong said. “He’s a great player and Colony’s a great team. We just got to come out ready to play.”
Kenai sophomore Josh Jackman netted 14 points to lead the Kards, but found himself in foul trouble in the fourth quarter, eventually fouling out with 58 seconds left.
The Stars also found themselves in foul trouble, as seniors Nate Spence and Joe Weltzin were also tagged with their fourth fouls late in the game. Spence received his fourth with 1:40 left in the third quarter and Weltzin with 4:31 left in the game. Weltzin eventually was sat with 1:06 to play.
SoHi got off to a blazing start in the first four minutes with a 10-point run to open the game, which was followed by Jackman sinking a pair of buckets to cut the lead to 16-10 early in the second quarter. At halftime, SoHi lead 22-15.
After a free throw by Jackman early in the third quarter left Kenai trailing by eight points, SoHi proceeded to score the next 11 straight points to push the lead to 35-16 with 3:01 left in the quarter.
Kenai responded with nine straight points as Landry suddenly found his stride from the 3-point arc, but in a game where momentum is key, the Stars found it at the end of the third quarter, as Furlong nailed a trey as the buzzer sounded, which put SoHi up 42-27. Overall, the Stars put up 20 points in the quarter.
“We played an extremely efficient third quarter, which really kind of turned the tide,” Tuter said. “It was going to be really tough (for Kenai) with that nice lead we had.”
However, Kenai was not done yet, answering back with 29 points in the fourth quarter. Kenai’s last-gasp effort came with 43 seconds to go in the game. Landry found space at the top of the 3-point arc and drilled a triple to close the gap to 57-51.
It would be all Kenai wrote, as Furlong evened the score from the free throw line.
Weltzin led the Stars offense with 17 points, and Spence added 12.
Marshall Vest added 12 points and bench player Tristan Landry, a sophomore, added 10.
In other boys action, the Palmer boys beat Kodiak 77-61 to set up a semifinal match with the top-seeded Wasilla Warriors.
Kardinals 37, Stars 28
Kenai 7 8 9 13 —37
Soldotna 1 9 6 12 —28
KENAI (37) — Ostrander 0 2-2 2, Holmes 0 0-0 0, Drury 2 2-2 7, Steinbeck 4 3-3 11, Baker 1 0-0 2, Booth 0 0-0 0, Barcus 2 2-6 6, Beck 4 1-2 9, Every 0 0-0 0. Totals 13 10-15 37.
SOLDOTNA (28) — Rouse 1 0-0 2, Nelson 0 0-0 0, Shaw 1 2-2 4, Wong 1 1-2 4, McElroy 0 0-0 0, Ramsell 4 5-10 13, Miller 1 3-4 5, Glaves 0 0-0 0. Totals 8 11-18 28.
3-point goals — Kenai 1 (Drury); Soldotna 1 (Wong). Fouled out — Barcus, Wong.
Stars 61, Kardinals 56
Soldotna 16 6 20 19 —61
Kenai 6 9 12 29 —56
SOLDOTNA (61) — Kuntz 1 1-2 4, Weltzin 7 3-5 17, Furlong 4 4-7 14, Phillips 0 4-7 4, Spence 5 1-2 12, Duke 0 1-2 1, Gibbs 0 0-0 0, Fowler 4 1-4 9, Trammell 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 14-29 61.
KENAI (56) — Theisen 2 0-0 5, Ivy 4 0-1 9, McKee 2 0-0 4, Brazell 0 0-0 0, Tr. Landry 2 4-5 10, Ta. Landry 0 0-0 0, Jackman 5 2-4 14, Vest 3 4-4 12, Fitt 1 0-0 2, Foree 0 0-2 0, Wortham 0 0-2 0. Totals 19 10-16 56.