For the first time in three years, the Seward girls made it to the final day of the Class 3A state basketball tournament.
After a loss to Anchorage Christian Schools on Thursday, Seward had to win or be sent home, and the Seahawks came up with a 37-33 victory over Bethel on Friday at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage to advance into the fourth-place game, set for 9 a.m. Saturday against Valdez, which topped Nikiski 54-45 in the other consolation semifinal.
For each of the past two seasons, the Seahawks have qualified for the state tournament, only to drop out by Friday with two straight losses.
This year was different.
“It was very important, just to break that,” said Seward coach Mark Clemens. “The team got down for a little bit, we got tired there, but we got that back in the game.”
The win comes a day after the Seahawks held powerhouse squad ACS to a single-digit lead until the early portion of the fourth quarter. ACS finished strong to beat Seward 48-32.
“That was a hard-fought game, so it wore us out a little bit,” Clemens said. “It took a little strength and endurance out of us, but Bethel’s always a tough team.”
Senior Ashley VonBorstel led Seward with 18 points and five rebounds. Clemens’ daughter, Kiana, had nine points, including two free throws with 15 seconds to go that pushed the Seahawks to a three-point lead and a great chance of winning.
“It’s just like yesterday’s game, it was playing our tempo and great defense,” the junior guard said. “We used our two-three zone, and making sure we stopped drives and stopped shooters.
“I think the fact that we held them to a low score, and being the only team other than Kodiak all season to do that, mentally we were like, we can do this.”
Whether motivated or not by the possibility a second loss, Seward started strong, getting layups from VonBorstel, Clemens and Laura Kromrey to stake out a 13-7 lead midway through the second quarter.
One of Bethel’s tendencies, however, is to strike from the perimeter, and the Warriors hammered Seward from 3-point land, taking 20 total attempts in the game. Seward had only six attempts, but both teams converted on three of them.
Kayla Williams had 11 shots from beyond the arc, putting Seward’s focus on the outside rim.
“They were working hard on their offense and we quit working a bit,” coach Clemens said. “We got tired, it came down to legs and brains, and we weren’t using both for a while there.”
Trailing 18-13 at halftime, Seward slowly began fighting back in the third quarter, and with 55 seconds remaining in the frame, VonBorstel found space in the corner and heaved a trey into the net to tie the game at 25 apiece.
“I don’t think we were nervous, I think we were more confident,” Kiana said. “We knew we just had to execute our game plan and I think we did it pretty well.”
With 4:06 left in the fourth quarter, Clemens hit the go-ahead jump shot to give Seward a one-point margin. A layup from Kromrey with 3:15 left put Seward ahead 34-31, which held until Bethel’s Riana Joseph grabbed a steal and took it in for a layup with 1:06 left.
Joseph didn’t get the bucket, but she was fouled and converted on the subsequent free throws to close the Warriors’ gap to one point.
From there, Seward tried to run the clock out by holding the ball, and Bethel was forced to foul the Seahawks.
That’s when Clemens and VonBorstel iced the game from the line.
“Yesterday, we were 9 for 23 from the free-throw line,” Clemens said. “Even if we would’ve been 15 for 23 from the line, it would’ve been a different game, with the momentum swing, so today was different.”
Valdez girls 54, Nikiski 45
The Nikiski girls team, playing in the Class 3A state tournament for the first time since 2009, suffered a two-and-out performance with a loss to the Buccaneers on Friday morning at the Sullivan Arena.
Falling behind early made life difficult for the Bulldogs, and Nikiski coach Scott Anderson said while his team made an effort to score early and often, Valdez managed to find the net better than the Bulldogs did.
“It’s always tough to come back after you lose a fairly close game the night before, and that dream of playing for a state title is gone,” Anderson said. “I thought our girls came out pretty ready to go today, but Valdez came out way better than they did yesterday.”
The Buccaneers sank 13 field goals in the first half for a shooting percentage of nearly 50 percent, while Nikiski had trouble with only six buckets for a 26 percent performance.
“I really felt like that was the big difference in this game,” Anderson said.
Senior Alyssa Darch had 15 points and collected 17 rebounds to lead the Bulldogs, coming up with 10 of Nikiski’s 12 points in the third quarter, and teammates Jodi Cook and Emily Lynch added 10 points each.
“As a senior, I thought Alyssa just decided that she’s going to get it done today,” Anderson said. “I was really proud of her, she just battled all game. She had a great tournament overall.”
Valdez, a team that lost to defending 3A champs Barrow on Thursday, flaunted an aggressive defensive press that had stumped Nikiski for much of the contest. It also helped Veronica Hursh pile up 21 points for herself.
“I mean, really, that’s what it was,” said Valdez coach Doug Fleming. “It’s what we didn’t do yesterday, we played flat yesterday. Today they wanted it, they didn’t want it to be over so they played harder.”
Trailing 27-14 at halftime, the Bulldogs cut into the lead when Darch converted two free throws, then grabbed a steal and a layup on the ensuing Valdez possession that left Nikiski with a 10-point deficit.
The problem was, every time Nikiski scored, Valdez countered with points of its own. With 4:26 left in the game, junior Rachel Thompson stole the ball and ran the length of the floor for a layup, cutting the gap to seven points.
In the final 1:22 of the contest, Valdez hit 5 of 8 free throws to keep Nikiski a comfortable distance away.
“They knew what it was going to take right to the very end to catch them,” Anderson said. “You know, we closed the gap and we just missed a few key shots at some key times, we turned the ball over when we had the opportunity to close the gap. It just didn’t happen.”
Anderson said he believes Nikiski’s overall goal of getting to state cushioned the sting of losing both games, but also plans on being back next year.
“Sometimes when teams get to state, they forget that the competition level is going to go up,” he said. “So I feel like we had a little bit of the deer-in-the-headlights look, especially yesterday.”
Seahawks 37, Warriors 33
Seward 6 7 12 12 —37
Bethel 5 13 9 6 —33
SEWARD (37) — VonBorstel 6 4-5 18, Anderson 0 0-0 0, Kromrey 3 1-2 7, Jackson 1 0-2 2, Whiteshield 0 1-4 1, Clemens 3 2-2 9. Totals 13 8-15 37.
BETHEL (33) — Oscar 0 0-0 0, Brink 1 0-0 2, Thomas 2 2-2 7, O’Brien 1 0-0 2, Williams 3 0-0 8, Joseph 3 6-8 12, Crow 1 0-0 2, Kinegak 0 0-0 0. Totals 11 8-10 33.
3-point field goals — Seward 3 (VonBorstel 2, Clemens 1); Bethel 3 (Williams 2, Thomas 1).
Team fouls — Seward 12; Bethel 13.
Buccaneers 54, Bulldogs 45
Valdez 13 14 12 15 —54
Nikiski 6 8 12 19 —45
VALDEZ (54) — Hursh 0 0-0 0, MacDonald 3 0-0 7, Merioles 3 1-4 7, Hursh 7 6-11 21, Rohrer 2 0-0 4, Fleming 2 2-3 6, Wamsley 3 3-4 9. Totals 20 12-22 54.
NIKISKI (45) — Riddall 0 0-0 0, Cook 5 0-0 10, Costello 0 1-2 1, Pitt 0 0-0 0, Litke 0 1-2 1, Lynch 4 2-4 10, Thompson 3 1-3 8, Parrish 0 0-0 0, Litzen 0 0-0 0, Darch 5 5-6 15. Totals 17 10-17 45.
3-point field goals — Valdez 2 (Hursh 1, MacDonald 1); Nikiski 1 (Thompson 1).
Team fouls — Valdez 17; Nikiski 22. Fouled out — Cook, Costello, Wamsley.