The last time the Kenai and Soldotna boys met on the basketball court, the Stars had to dish out everything they had just to stem a colossal Kenai second-half rally.
On Saturday, SoHi did not have to worry about blowing a big lead, since they were the ones pulling the late-game heroics.
The Stars scored the final nine points of the game to claim a narrow 43-42 win over the Kards on Kenai’s senior night.
Soldotna senior Joe Weltzin scored six points himself in the final 3 minutes, 9 seconds, of the game, including the go-ahead bucket with 36 seconds left, to end up with 12 points total. Fellow SoHi senior Nate Spence led SoHi with a game-high 18 points.
Weltzin, who is recovering from a recent illness, said it took some effort to muster up the ability to knock down 4 of 6 free-throw attempts during the late run.
“The free throws had me a little queasy,” the 6-foot-3 Washington transplant said. “Being down like that, missing free throws is big.”
The win leaves Soldotna with a 5-5 Northern Lights Conference record, good for third in the division.
Following Weltzin’s shot, Kenai worked hard for the final 30 seconds to find a shot to retake the lead, but the only shot taken was by Vest, who sent a midrange jumper up with under five ticks remaining that missed and was brought down by Furlong to seal the win.
“That was exciting,” Soldotna coach Mark Tuter said about the late drama. “I thought maybe we could turn it around but I didn’t know for sure, and we missed a few free throws even, so we made it exciting all around.”
Tuter said the final offensive play by the Stars was designed to find Weltzin, whose size would be advantageous over Kenai’s smaller guards.
“I wanted him to have it,” Tuter said. “They were in foul trouble and really didn’t have anyone to cover Joe. I figured he’d either get fouled or get a nice shot, or both.”
Kenai ended the regular season with a 3-7 conference mark, leaving them sixth in the NLC standings and looking at a first-round matchup with Soldotna at next weekend’s region tournament.
Kenai coach Ken Felchle said he was proud of the effort of his team Saturday, but the loss still stung.
“Tonight hurts, no doubt about that,” Felchle said. “But it’s not the end of the story for us.”
Felchle said in the team postgame locker room cooldown, he wrote the word “closer” on the board, implying that the Kards are closing the gap to the top teams in the division with each passing game.
“We’ve just continued to battle,” Felchle said. “The first game (against Soldotna) we just didn’t battle in the first half, and we had a hard road to climb. This game, we battled all the way to the end.”
After a 3-pointer from Marshall Vest with three seconds left in the first half sent the Kards into the locker room with a 24-22 lead, Kenai continued the momentum with a fantastic orchestrated defensive effort in the third quarter.
Kenai held SoHi to a lackluster four points in the quarter due to a frustrating press that forced the Stars to turn the ball over on numerous occasions. Vest and Josh Jackman led the brutal attack with several steals that turned into transition points.
“Marshall had a tremendous game,” Felchle said. “What he did on both ends of the floor, he led the way for us.”
Vest ultimately ended with 14 points to lead Kenai, while Jackman scored 12, all in the first three quarters of play.
“We came out pretty flat tonight, just took a while to get going,” Tuter said. “Hopefully when we play them on Thursday we won’t come out so flat to begin with.”
Keith Ivy tipped in a layup with 4:10 to play in the game that left Kenai with a 42-34 lead.
From there, Spence and Weltzin took over. Spence started the final push with a driving layup, and was followed by Weltzin sinking a pair of free throws.
With 2:27 left, Jackman fouled out on a charging call, leaving Kenai without one of its top scorers.
Weltzin hit 1 of 2 shots from the charity line with 1:22 to play that cut Kenai’s lead to 42-41, and after the Kards couldn’t score on their ensuing possession, SoHi took the ball with a shot to win.
Looking to the left corner, Weltzin received the dish from Brooks Furlong and tipped in the layup to give Soldotna the lead with 36 ticks on the clock.
“That was a big shot, I’m tall and lanky but those (Kenai) guys are stockier than me, so they push me around a bit,” Weltzin said. “Luckily he was fronting me, so I had to lean back and Brooks threw it over the top.
“This was one of the tightest, fun games I’ve played in.”
Soldotna girls 40, Kenai 35
The Kardinals threw everything at the Stars on their senior night, but SoHi still came out on top to sweep the season series between the two schools.
Hayley Ramsell and Haley Miller scored 12 points each to lead SoHi to the win. The Stars finished their Northern Lights Conference campaign 3-7 for the year.
“We’re happy with finishing the season like this,” said Soldotna coach Kyle McFall. “We want to go into regions on a positive note.”
Hannah Barcus scored 13 points for Kenai, leading eight Kenai players in the scoring column. Sarah Every added five points.
Kenai finished 2-8 in the division for the year, giving the Kards a fifth seed, and will get a rematch with fourth-seeded Soldotna on the opening day of the NLC tournament, which is fine with Kenai coach Stacia Rustad.
“Hey, we’ll take them,” Rustad said. “We’ll be back again.”
Working with a notoriously tough Kenai defense, the Stars saw themselves fall into a 10-6 hole after the first quarter. Barcus led the way with six quick points on 4-for-5 shooting from the free-throw line. Barcus ultimately finished 9 for 13 on free throws.
However, Soldotna made a late surge in the first half to grab a 21-18 halftime lead. Ramsell and Lindsey Wong both found success in driving the lane to post layups in a 9-0 run that put SoHi ahead 21-14 with 2:31 to play in the second quarter.
“We worked really hard this week getting back to fundamental stuff, and they showed it by moving the ball well,” McFall said. “Transition has always been the strong point for us this year, and when we got our opportunities, they took advantage of it.”
Skylar Shaw and Ramsell continued the momentum in the second half with a 6-0 run, but Kenai cut back with pressure from Alexis Baker and Allie Ostrander to close the gap to 28-24.
A booming triple from Every with 59 seconds left in the game left Kenai trailing 38-35.
But once Miller caught fire for the Stars, Kenai found it difficult to contain the senior leader.
“Haley did a great job in the second half going to the basket,” McFall said. “She was patient and really waited for her opportunities.”
Miller scored eight of SoHi’s last 12 points to seal the win, including a free throw with 16 seconds left that made it a two-possession game.
Stars 40, Kardinals 35
Soldotna 6 15 13 6 —40
Kenai 10 8 9 8 —35
SOLDOTNA (40) — Rouse 0 0-0 0, Nelson 0 0-0 0, Shaw 4 0-0 8, Wong 3 2-5 8, McElroy 0 0-0 0, Ramsell 4 4-5 12, Miller 5 2-4 12, Glaves 0 0-0 0. Totals 16 8-14 40.
KENAI (35) — Ostrander 0 2-4 2, Holmes 1 0-0 2, Drury 1 0-0 3, Steinbeck 2 0-0 4, Baker 2 0-0 4, Booth 0 0-0 0, Barcus 2 9-13 13, Beck 0 2-4 2, Every 2 0-0 5. Totals 10 13-21 35.
3-point goals — Kenai 2 (Every 1, Drury 1). Fouled out — Beck.
Stars 43, Kardinals 42
Soldotna 10 12 4 17 —43
Kenai 8 18 12 6 —42
SOLDOTNA (43) — Kuntz 1 0-0 2, Weltzin 3 6-10 12, Furlong 2 0-0 5, Phillips 0 0-0 0, Spence 6 5-7 18, Duke 1 0-0 2, Gibbs 1 0-2 2, Fowler 1 0-0 2, Trammell 0 0-0 0. Totals 14 11-19 43.
KENAI (42) — Theisen 3 2-2 8, Ivy 1 1-2 3, McKee 2 1-3 5, T. Landry 0 0-0 0, Jackman 6 0-1 12, Vest 6 0-0 14, Foree 0 0-2 0, Wortham 0 0-2 0. Totals 18 4-12 42.