Under the bright lights at the spacious Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage, the Nikiski girls drowned out the nightmares of the Southcentral Conference tournament with a resounding 29-25 first-round victory over Grace Christian on Thursday night at the Class 3A March Madness state tournament.
After wasting a double-digit lead in the second half to a relentless Grace defensive press, all it took was one big play to secure the win, and sophomore Kelsey Clark was up to the task.
Clark chased down a full-court inbounds lob from a teammate and managed to fight off two Grace defenders to lay in a fast-break bucket with 33 seconds left in the game, pushing Nikiski’s lead to four points.
“It’s just crazy, we’re all so happy,” said a relieved Clark, who praised Nikiski’s bench. “We just had a lot of encouragement at the end.”
The victory advanced Nikiski to Friday’s semifinal round, setting the third-seeded Bulldogs up with a date against second-seeded Sitka at 7 p.m.
Clark finished with a team-high eight points and eight rebounds and joined her teammates in a joyous celebration on court after the win with high-fives all around.
“Kelsey played fearless,” said Nikiski head coach Scott Anderson. “That play was a great example of playing fearless, and you gotta make those plays to win.”
The victory also quelled any fears that the Bulldogs couldn’t win without star player Bethany Carstens. Nikiski lost Carstens to injury at the conference tournament two weeks ago, ending the sophomore guard’s superlative season on the spot.
With Carstens out of the lineup, Anderson challenged his team to dream big and take on the big dance with a renewed vigor. Anderson said his squad could win if each player scored six points, amounting to a reasonable 60 points and a victory.
Instead, the two region opponents found each other locked in a defensive struggle.
“That was a defensive battle,” Anderson said. “And that’s a team (Grace) that beat ACS in the region championship.”
The dramatic finish was preceded by a red-hot start by the Bulldogs, who quickly built up a 14-2 lead in the first quarter.
After an opening bucket by Grace Christian, Bulldogs senior Avery Kornstad answered with consecutive triples 44 seconds apart, and Rylee Jackson added a 3-pointer of her own for a 9-2 Nikiski edge.
Nikiski’s defensive intensity led to a 16-9 halftime lead, thanks to cold 3-for-22 shooting by Grace in the first half.
The cold shooting continued for Grace in the third quarter, but the Grizzlies finally came out of hibernation in the fourth period, starting with a floater by Sarah Laker.
One of Grace’s most dangerous players, Annie VanderWeide, finally broke out of her slump with a pair of 3s on consecutive possessions. It amounted to a 10-0 Grace run in a span of 1:45, slashing the comfortable lead that Nikiski once owned down to 27-25.
“That’s happened to us more than once,” Anderson said, referring to Grace’s penchant for late comebacks.
The final moments began with a Grace turnover on a bad pass with 1:28 to play, followed by a missed Shamburger shot with 38 seconds left, which was rebounded by Clark.
Those two missed opportunities set up Clark’s big moment. After her fast-break layup, Clark grabbed the rebound on a missed 3-pointer attempt by VanderWeide and Nikiski was able to run out the clock by evading Grace’s attempts to foul in the final seconds.
“This is much better,” Clark said about the state win, the first for Nikiski’s girls team since their most recent appearance in 2015.
Anderson anticipates another tough test in today’s semifinals. Nikiski beat Sitka 47-28 in a tournament game earlier in the season, but the combination of Carstens’ absence and the intensity of a state tournament atmosphere could easily make for another close battle.
“It’s going to take a complete effort,” he said.
Bulldogs 29, Grizzlies 25
Nikiski 14 2 9 4 — 29
Grace 5 4 4 12 — 25
NIKISKI (29) — Wik 0 0-0 0, Pitt 1 0-0 2, Vollertsen 2 1-1 5, Johnson 0 0-0 0, Kornstad 2 0-0 6, Clark 4 0-0 8, Jackson 2 0-0 5, Porter 1 0-0 3. Totals 12 1-1 29.
GRACE CHRISTIAN (25) — VanderWeide 3 1-2 9, Markel 0 0-0 0, Osborne 0 0-0 0, Shamburger 2 1-1 5, Jarvis 0 0-0 0, Salima 2 1-1 5, Laker 2 2-2 6. Totals 9 5-6 25.
3-point goals — Nikiski 4 (Kornstad 2, Jackson 1, Porter 1); Grace 2 (VanderWeide 2).