They don’t call it March Madness just to draw in the crowds.
Thursday’s first-round state tournament matchup between the Soldotna and West girls at the Sullivan Arena only added to the intrigue and drama that basketball fans this time of year drool over.
Soldotna took West to overtime, but came up short in a 58-55 loss, sending the Stars to the consolation side of the girls Class 4A bracket.
Fu’a Malaetia hit the game-winning 3-pointer with five seconds left in overtime to send the Eagles off to a semifinal matchup with Colony on Friday.
“I was thinking, here we go again.” said West coach Stanley Engel. “They did a great job of making us go through somebody else, and we were trying to hold off for the last shot.”
Preceding West’s game-winning trey, SoHi had twice clawed back to tie the game — once in regulation and again in overtime — getting three clutch shots from beyond the arc from senior Kelci Benson.
“All spring break I practiced getting my 3s off, and it was just my night, I guess,” Benson said.
Benson ended with 11 points in the game, hitting all of her 3s in the final 2:26 of regulation and overtime. Senior Julie Litchfield led SoHi with 18 points, and senior Katelynn Kerkvliet grabbed nine rebounds.
SoHi will face the East Thunderbirds in the consolation semifinals today at 11:30 a.m. at the Sullivan Arena.
Even with Thursday’s loss, Soldotna coach Doug Blossom said his team is not hanging its heads.
“I thought we played our best game in a long time,” Blossom said. “Maybe not the best of the year, but the best in a long time.”
Instead of teary faces at the sound of the buzzer, the Stars came off the court with the satisfaction knowing they had played a good game.
“I don’t know how much better we could’ve played,” Benson said. “We’re definitely making a comeback after regions. It was just a good game, and no one was really hanging their heads because, what more could we do?”
The Stars came out firing on all cylinders, shooting 50 percent in the first half and getting 13 straight points from senior Julie Litchfield that gave SoHi a 25-18 lead with 2 minutes, 39 seconds, left in the half. Litchfield had 15 points on 5 for 8 shooting in the first half.
West closed the gap with a basket and a few free throws that resulted in a 25-23 SoHi lead at halftime, and the Eagles continued to push in the second half, taking the lead early in the third quarter and holding it until Benson began to catch fire.
Midway through the fourth quarter, sophomore Lindsey Wong twice kept the Stars within one possession with four crucial points on two free throws and a layup. Wong ended with 14 points on 6 for 9 shooting.
“You’ve just seen a side of Lindsey Wong that we see every night in practice,” Blossom said. “She’s just a sophomore, so she gets nervous sometimes. When she’s not nervous, she can do it.”
Benson cut the gap to one point on a 3 with 2:26 remaining. West responded with a short jumper from Theyoung Puoy, but on SoHi’s ensuing possession, Benson once again was left open on the perimeter, and she made West pay with an arcing 3-pointer that splashed in to tie it up at 50 apiece.
“My whole strategy in the second half was to keep the ball out of Litchfield’s hands, and we were trapping off of (Benson), and she hit big shot after big shot,” Engel said.
In the final 90 seconds of regulation, West attempted to hold the ball and wait for one final shot, which Puoy attempted with a 3-pointer that bounced off the rim.
West started strong in the four-minute overtime period with consecutive buckets from Chanel Bookert and Chamira Cockerham to take a four-point edge, but the younger of the Wong sisters answered with a layup to close the gap again.
With 46 seconds left in overtime, Benson got free in the corner and released a tying trey for the second time, knotting it up at 55.
“I was trying to get Kelci another 3 at the very end, but that last 3 was big,” Blossom said. “It came down to one of their girls who hadn’t scored a basket all game.”
In the final 45 seconds, West again tried holding the ball in hopes of getting off the last shot, and they found it with Malaetia in the corner, who had enough space to sink her first bucket of the game and send the West supporters into a frenzy.
“We were focused on Julie being on the outside,” Blossom said. “We wanted her there to get Bookert and (Marshala Eady) outside.”
With 2.6 seconds left on the clock, it came down to one possession for the Stars, who needed one more big play from Benson. Litchfield inbounded the ball in West territory to Benson, who took a dribble and tried to turn around for the shot, but two West defenders kept her contained enough to block any attempt.
“I wanted Kelci coming off that screen,” Blossom said. “In fact I thought she could’ve caught it and shot it, but she just drove one dribble too far. She wanted to get a little closer, which I don’t blame her.”
Blossom said his team’s goal is to play to Saturday, which would mean getting to the tournament fourth-place game at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I’m still confident in this team, we showed tonight we can play with the best,” Blossom said. “We just hit a roadblock, but right now our focus, I want that intensity we left the court with for tomorrow for the East game.
“We want to play on Saturday, that’s our goal all along.”
Eagles 58, Stars 55, OT
West 11 12 17 10 8 —58
Soldotna 16 9 10 15 5 —55
WEST (58) — Malaetia 1 1-5 4, Bookert 4 6-6 15, Alcantara 0 0-0 0, Eady 7 2-3 17, Puoy 6 0-0 12, Cockerham 4 2-4 10, Tuiniua 0 0-0 0. Totals 22 11-18 58.
SOLDOTNA (55) — Nelson 1 0-0 2, Benson 4 0-0 11, Litchfield 6 4-8 18, M. Wong 1 0-1 2, L. Wong 6 2-2 14, Hendrick 0 0-0 0, Kerkvliet 3 0-2 6, Miller 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 6-13 55.
3-point field goals — West 3 (Malaetia 1, Bookert 1, Eady 1); Soldotna 5 (Benson 3, Litchfield 2).