It may not have been pretty, but in the highly competitive Northern Lights Conference, the Soldotna boys hoops team is willing to take a victory any way it can.
The Stars had only one bucket in the fourth quarter, but sank 15 of 19 free throws to seal a 51-43 victory over the Palmer Moose on Wednesday night at Soldotna High School.
“It looked really nice, didn’t it?” said Soldotna coach Matt Johnson. “You know, we’re a group of kids that on any given night can be really good at any part of the game, whether that’s shooting, defense, whatever. Tonight free-throw shooting was one of them.”
Free throws accounted for Soldotna’s final 15 points, after Palmer closed the gap to 36-31 with six minutes left in the game. The clutch shooting couldn’t have come at a better time for SoHi, as 6-foot-5 senior Daniel McElroy fouled out with three minutes, 52 seconds, to go. McElroy led the Stars with 15 points.
“Any time your best rebounder and defender goes out of the game, you’re never really comfortable with that,” Johnson said. “He did a great job defensively and rebounding, and if the ball’s in the air he always comes down with it.”
Senior Colton Young added 14 points for SoHi, which included hitting all seven of his free-throw attempts.
SoHi improved its season record to 10-8, while Palmer dropped to 6-13.
The Stars opened the game on a 9-2 run, but the Moose did not let the deficit grow much bigger through the rest of the game. After a seven-point first quarter, Palmer outscored Soldotna 19-12 in the second and only trailed 24-19 at halftime.
A fast start to the second half made for an exciting game, as Palmer took a brief lead with 3:37 left in the third quarter on a Chandler Jones jumper. The lead lasted all of 16 seconds, the only time all game Palmer was ahead. Jones ended the game with 12 points.
The Moose cut the Stars’ lead to two in the waning seconds of the third quarter, but Colton Young injected some energy into SoHi with an off-balance, long-range trey that beat the buzzer.
“The big difference in the game was free throws,” said Palmer coach Brandon Blake. “I give them credit, they did a great job defensively, they’re definitely a well-coached team.”
In the fourth quarter, James Nisbett and Adam Ramoth kept Palmer close with acrobatic drives to the basket, but Soldotna began holding the ball longer and causing the Moose to foul. Ramoth led Palmer with 14 points.
“We wanted to work for a great shot, we didn’t want to settle for just an OK shot,” Johnson said. “I was telling the guys you don’t want to go to the stall game, but you want to be deliberate with what you’re doing and look for a great shot.”
With 3:52 to go, however, it was McElroy that fouled out for good. But as hard as Palmer tried to score after fouling a Soldotna player, the Stars proved their mettle at the charity stripe.
“I think we’re two evenly matched teams, and I think it’s going to be an exciting region tournament,” Blake said.
Johnson concurred with Blake, saying the parity between hoops teams in the Northern Lights Conference is shaping up for a close tournament in two weeks’ time.
“Right now, Kodiak’s beaten Colony twice, we’ve split with Kodiak, Palmer split with Kodiak, Wasilla’s playing well,” Johnson said. “I really think it’s as open as I’ve seen.”
Soldotna girls 40, Palmer 29
The SoHi girls team got back on track in the Northern Lights Conference with a victory over the Moose Wednesday night in Soldotna.
After a long road trip, the Stars returned for only their third home game of the season, and improved their season record to 15-4 with the win, while Palmer dropped to 9-10.
“I thought we started off the game really good and then bogged down a little,” said Soldotna coach Doug Blossom. “The first game back home for a long time, we’ve been away a long time. We just couldn’t get on track.”
Soldotna senior Katelynn Kerkvliet scored 10 of her game-high 20 points in the first quarter, helping the Stars to a 12-2 lead early in the game.
The DePriest sisters led Palmer with eight points each — senior Kalei and sophomore Leya.
“It’s been an issue with us, our first-quarter scoring,” said Palmer coach Lyle Busbey. “We were playing good defense, but that’s something we got to figure out.
“We’re starting three sophomores, so part of it is that we’re just timid.”
After starting fast, Soldotna managed the lead but never took off and left Palmer for a big gap. Trailing 20-13 at halftime, the Moose started the second half with a 7-4 run, finding good looks under the basket for post player Leya DePriest, but Soldotna answered back with an 8-2 run to end the third quarter.
“We turned the ball over way too much against Kodiak, and that was one of our main goals tonight, just taking care of the ball,” Blossom said. “Julie (Litchfield) and Kelci (Benson) did a good job of that.”
Litchfield scored nine points, all in the second half.
Blossom said senior Makayla Wong has been nursing an injured ankle since the overtime loss to Chugiak at the Dimond Lynx tournament in Anchorage two weeks ago, and her improved play in Wednesday’s game helped open up the floor more.
After Palmer got to within eight points of SoHi midway through the fourth quarter, Litchfield and Kerkvliet knocked down consecutive layups to put the gap at 38-26 with 3:01 left and ice the game.
As far as the Northern Lights Conference playoff picture, Blossom continues to believe his team is one of the best, but said he’s keeping things under wraps for now.
“I’m not even looking at that,” Blossom said. “I still think we’re in a good position, the girls are setting themselves up. Yeah, we lost a couple games, but we just got to finish.”
Stars 51, Moose 43
Soldotna 12 12 10 17 —51
Palmer 7 12 10 14 —43
SOLDOTNA (51) — Calloway 0 0-0 0, Young 3 7-7 14, Conradi 1 4-5 6, Furlong 0 0-0 0, Spence 2 3-5 8, Kruse 1 3-4 6, Fowler 1 0-0 2, McElroy 5 5-6 15. Totals 13 22-27 51.
PALMER (43) — Ramoth 6 2-2 14, Jones 4 3-4 12, Ferris 0 0-0 0, Southwick 0 0-1 0, Wells 1 0-0 2, Nisbett 3 5-5 12, Christiansen 0 1-2 1, Colbert 0 0-0 0, Yanez 1 0-0 2. Totals 15 11-14 43.
3-point field goals — Soldotna 3 (Young 1, Spence 1, Kruse 1); Palmer 2 (Jones 1, Nisbett 1).
Team fouls — Soldotna 17; Palmer 16. Fouled out — McElroy.
Stars 40, Moose 29
Palmer 2 11 9 7 —29
Soldotna 10 10 12 8 —40
PALMER (29) — King 2 1-1 5, Venzke 2 0-3 5, DePriest 4 0-1 8, Bowman 0 0-0 0, Osiensky 0 0-0 0, Ledger 0 1-2 1, Perkins 0 0-0 0, Till 1 0-0 2, DePriest 4 0-0 8. Totals — 13 2-7 29.
SOLDOTNA (40) — Nelson 0 0-0 0, Benson 1 0-0 3, Shaw 0 0-0 0, Litchfield 4 0-0 9, M. Wong 2 0-0 4, L. Wong 1 0-0 2, Hendricks 1 0-0 2, Kerkvliet 9 2-2 20, Miller 0 0-0 0. Totals — 18 2-2 40.
3-point goals — Palmer 1 (Venzke); Soldotna 1 (Litchfield). Team fouls — Palmer 6, Soldotna 14. Fouled out — none.