The last time the Nikolaevsk boys hoops team qualified for the state tournament, coach Steve Klaich missed the game that put them in.
At least he had a good reason — he was in Homer for the birth of his daughter, Kilina, who now currently plays for the Nikolaevsk girls.
“We advanced to state, and I was in the hospital welcoming my daughter into the world,” Klaich recalled.
The year was 1997, and Klaich called upon his father, who was a basketball coach himself, to take on coaching duties for the boys team that day, who were playing Homer Christian.
On Saturday at Skyview High School, the Nikolaevsk boys finally earned a return trip back to state with a 43-39 victory over Cook Inlet Academy in the Peninsula Conference tournament second-place game. The Warriors will join the Seldovia boys — who are also breaking a state drought — as the two teams representing the conference in a week from now.
“My wife (Bea Klaich) and I have been working hard to develop a basketball program at Nikolaevsk for years,” Klaich said. “And we’ve started with elementary students, teaching the fundamentals, and reinforcing the fundamentals in junior high, and now we’re starting to reap the benefits of that in high school.
“You don’t get a program like that overnight.”
It didn’t come easy for the Warriors.
On Friday night, the Seldovia boys hoops team clinched its first state tournament berth in six years with an exciting 51-47 victory over Nikolaevsk.
In a game that featured 11 lead changes — eight in the third quarter alone — the Sea Otters had to rally back with eight straight points in the fourth quarter after leading much of the way and held off one final charge from the Warriors to seal the win.
It marks the first state spot for Seldovia since 2008, when the team finished fifth in the boys Class 2A state tournament.
“We finished third of these three teams at our own tournament earlier this year,” said Seldovia coach Mark Janes, referring to Nikolaevsk and CIA. “No one can remember the last time we won regions, so this is great.”
Aiden Philpot’s 16 points led Seldovia, and he came up big when his team needed him, scoring eight in the fourth quarter.
“It’s crazy, we played like we were down the whole game,” Philpot said. “It was so intense, it was just awesome.”
Teammate Calem Collier contributed 14 points as well.
“They’re a young group of kids, and they’ve played since junior high but this is a whole different level,” Janes said. “I was just trying to keep the energy up, keep them focused, working as a team and they responded.”
Neil Gordeev scored 16 points for Nikolaevsk, utilizing his height advantage to tip in a number of offensive rebounds, and teammate Jonah Fefelov added 11.
Nikolaevsk’s offense was not necessarily the problem, it was the number of offensive boards and second-chance opportunities that Seldovia was getting that hindered the Warriors.
Jaruby Nelson started the game with six first-quarter points, but ultimately ended with only nine total.
“We were taking shots but not getting offensive rebounds, which makes it tough,” said Nikolaevsk coach Steve Klaich. “Shots were falling like they usually do, but we gave up too many second-chance points. They were jumping for the ball instead of boxing out and then rebounding.”
Leading 10-8 after one quarter, Philpot and Collier stretched Seldovia’s lead with to nine with a flurry of jumpshots and one shot from beyond the arc, but Gordeev kept Nikolaevsk in the game with a few buckets of his own.
Seldovia took a 24-20 lead into halftime, but Nikolaevsk came back in the third quarter, exchanging buckets between the duo of Gordeev and Jonah Fefelov and the duo of Seldovia’s Collier and Chance Haller.
At the end of the frame, Nikolaevsk held a 39-37 lead.
“We went into halftime, and they were confident up top,” Janes said. “Niko was getting steals, and we had to focus on our passing and fundamentals.
“It came down to a few key boards there that Aiden got that totally changed the momentum for us.”
Philpot used a layup to tie it up early in the fourth quarter, but was answered by Fefelov with a 3-pointer.
From there, Seldovia ran off eight straight points from Collier and Philpot. With 1:34 to go, Jaruby Nelson nailed a 3 that closed Nikolaevsk’s gap to 47-45, but putback layups off of offensive rebounds dictated the outcome for Seldovia in the final minute.
Saturday, things didn’t look much better for Nikolaevsk in the second-place game, but they finished strong to seal the win.
CIA started hot out of the gate, getting shots from Timmy Smithwick and Mylon Weems to grab an early 13-9 lead. Nikolaevsk’s first-quarter tally consisted of only 3-pointers.
Neil Gordeev, Nikolaevsk’s tallest player, also had to be called to the bench after getting hit with two early fouls.
“On the offensive end, I was emphasizing to them that I wanted to take the ball to the hole, and not just settle for 3s” Klaich said. “I knew that if we got inside, the 3-point shot would open up. We had the size and skill to get inside, and we were only looking for 3s early. We weren’t getting shots and we fell behind.”
Klaich commended the defensive performance of Felemon Molodih, who had the tough task of guarding CIA’s Timmy Smithwick most of the game. Smithwick was held to eight points. Mylon Weems led the Eagles with 10 points.
CIA led 19-17 at halftime, and stretched its lead by the end of the third quarter to 28-23.
That’s when Nikolaevsk’s offense began to explode.
Jonah Fefelov hit a layup to get things started, and Jaruby Nelson followed that up with a jumper. Fefelov’s free throw with 6:39 left tied the game at 28 apiece. Nelson ended with 22 points, including four 3s, to lead Nikolaevsk.
Following a CIA possession, Nelson brought the ball down the court, set up in the near corner and fired off a 3-pointer to give Nikolaevsk a 31-28 lead. Nelson then pulled the same stunt on the very next Warriors possession, this time hitting a long jumper to extend the lead.
“We just stayed focus and stayed within my game, found the key and take the shots I normally take,” Nelson said. “I’ve practiced that for years.”
After a Riley Smithwick layup, freshman Nikit Fefelov decided to heat up, hitting consecutive treys that put Nikolaevsk up 39-31 with 3:29 to go that had the gym rocking.
“When we got the ball, our instincts kicked in and the first thing we thought of was to shoot the 3,” Fefelov said.
Fefelov scored nine points total, all on 3s.
CIA coach Justin Franchino took the blame for setting up his defense in a way that allowed the Warriors to get open looks from long range.
“We were a little slow to rotate, and I made a mistake with switching the defense up,” Franchino said. “They were just hitting shots, and basketball is a game where you put your team in a position to win, and we did that tonight. They were hitting shots tonight, and that was the difference in the game.
“They were cold last night against Seldovia, and they were hot tonight. All that credit goes to them.”
David Barlow closed CIA’s deficit with a trey of his own, and the game began to tighten up once again. With 1:32 remaining, Timmy Smithwick tipped in a missed free-throw attempt from Weems that closed the gap to 39-37.
However, that would be the last time CIA would stay within one possession of Nikolaevsk. Nelson played the final seconds of the game by holding the ball and getting the fouls, and he hit four free throws to clinch the win.
“We’ve worked all year for this,” Nelson said. “It’s great.”
Fefelov echoed Nelson’s sentiments.
“I can’t even express how this feels, I’ve wanted to do this since I was a little kid,” Fefelov said.
Earlier on Saturday, the CIA boys beat Wasilla Lake to earn a spot in the second-place game against Nikolaevsk.
CIA boys 56, Ninilchik 19
The Eagles took care of business Friday afternoon to extend their hopes of making it to state, one day after suffering a close loss to Seldovia.
Timmy Smithwick scored 22 points to lead CIA, including 18 in the second half. Teammate Riley Solie added 14 points and Mylon Weems had 11.
Austin White paced Ninilchik with 12 points.
CIA led 21-17 at halftime, but the second half was where they dominated, outscoring Ninilchik 35-2.
CIA hoarded the ball in the second half, only allowing a single bucket by Ninilchik in the fourth quarter after a scoreless third quarter.
Wasilla Lake boys 77, Nanwalek 74
Not even 42 points from John Romanoff could help Nanwalek keep their tournament hopes alive on Friday, as the Eagles fell to Wasilla Lake in the consolation bracket.
Nevertheless, Romanoff had a huge day, attempting 24 free throws (hitting 14), and 13 field goals in the loss. He had 22 points by halftime, including going 8-for-15 from the charity stripe in the second quarter alone.
Wasilla Lake was led by Braden Thorn with 20 points, while Walter Cook added 18.
Romanoff wrapped up the game with 14 points in the fourth quarter, but it wasn’t enough to withstand the 22 points from Wasilla Lake in the same frame.
Wasilla Lake started the game with 25 points in the first quarter.
Warriors 43, Eagles 39
Nikolaevsk 9 8 6 20 —43
Cook Inlet 13 6 9 11 —39
NIKOLAEVSK (43) — Nelson 7 4-5 22, A. Yakunin 2 1-2 5, N. Fefelov 3 0-0 9, Gordeev 1 0-0 2, F. Molodih 0 0-0 0, J. Fefelov 1 3-6 5. Totals 14 8-13 43.
CIA (39) — Hammond 1 0-0 3, R. Smithwick 3 1-2 8, Barlow 1 0-0 3, Leaf 3 1-3 7, T. Smithwick 4 0-0 8, R. Solie 0 0-0 0, Weems 4 2-4 10. Totals 16 4-9 39.
3-point field goals — Nikolaevsk 7 (Nelson 4, N. Fefelov 3); CIA 3 (Hammond 1, R. Smithwick 1, Barlow 1).
Team fouls — Nikolaevsk 8; CIA 14. Fouled out — R. Smithwick.
Sea Otters 51, Warriors 47
Seldovia 10 14 13 14 —51
Nikolaevsk 8 12 19 8 —47
SELDOVIA (51) — R. Waterbury 0 0-0 0, Sidibe 0 0-0 0, D. Waterbury 5 0-0 10, Collier 5 2-2 14, Haller 2 0-1 4, Philpot 7 2-2 16, O’Leary 3 1-2 7. Totals 22 5-7 51.
NIKOLAEVSK (47) — Nelson 4 0-2 9, A. Yakunin 3 0-1 6, N. Fefelov 2 0-2 5, Gordeev 8 0-0 16, Molodih 0 0-2 0, J. Fefelov 4 0-0 11. Totals 21 0-7 47.
3-point field goals — Seldovia 2 (Collier 2); Nikolaevsk 5 (J. Fefelov 3, N. Fefelov 1, Nelson 1).
Team fouls — Seldovia 8; Nikolaevsk 9.
Eagles 56, Wolverines 19
Cook Inlet 17 4 14 21 —56
Ninilchik 9 8 0 2 —19
CIA (56) — Hammond 0 0-0 0, R. Smithwick 0 0-1 0, Barlow 3 0-1 9, Leaf 0 0-0 0, J. Solie 0 0-0 0, T. Smithwick 9 4-4 22, Lyons 0 0-0 0, R. Solie 5 2-2 14, Weems 4 3-5 11. Totals 21 9-13 56.
NINILCHIK (19) — Presley 1 0-0 2, Mirales 2 1-2 5, Bartolowits 0 0-0 0, Thorn 0 0-0 0, S. Appelhanz 0 0-0 0, White 5 2-3 12, Delgado 0 0-1 0. Totals 8 3-5 19.
3-point field goals — Ninilchik 0.
Team fouls — Ninilchik 13.
Rams 77, Eagles 74
Wasilla Lake 25 15 15 22 —77
Nanwalek 17 22 17 18 —74
WASILLA LAKE (77) — J. Stiner 5 4-5 14, B. Stiner 2 1-3 5, Wilson 1 2-2 4, Sherban 0 2-4 2, Knowles 5 1-5 11, Thorn 9 2-2 20, Palmberg 1 1-2 3, Cook 6 4-4 18. Totals 29 17-27 77.
NANWALEK (74) — X. Romanoff 6 2-3 18, T. Ukatish 2 1-2 5, J. Romanoff 13 14-24 42, Anahonak 1 1-2 3, L. Ukatish 0 0-0 0, Evans 3 0-0 6, N. Ukatish 0 0-0 0. Totals 25 18-31 74.
3-point field goals — Wasilla Lake 2 (Cook 2); Nanwalek 6 (X. Romanoff 4, J. Romanoff 2).
Team fouls — Wasilla Lake 24; Nanwalek 20. Fouled out — Evans, Sherban, Knowles.