A strong season of basketball by the Soldotna girls ended with a spark Saturday at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex at UAA in Anchorage.
The Stars fended off the Dimond Lynx 52-40 in a wire-to-wire victory to claim the title of fourth place at the Class 4A girls state tournament, putting an exclamation point on the season and the three-day tournament.
“These last two games have been awesome,” said SoHi center Katelynn Kerkvliet. “I’m so glad we got to win the last two games of our career, and it means a lot to the seniors and we came out and played good, so that’s all we could’ve asked for.”
The Soldotna senior class ended on a high note as well. Kerkvliet led SoHi on Saturday with 17 points and 13 rebounds, Kelci Benson added 14 points, Julie Litchfield had nine points and five boards, and Makayla Wong had five points and brought down 11 rebounds.
In three days of action, the Stars took West to overtime, trounced East, and handled Dimond, helping to boost the idea that they are truly one of the elite teams in the state.
“It’s just been great,” said SoHi coach Doug Blossom. “We came to the state tournament, which means we’re in the final eight for one, we lose an overtime game I really feel we could’ve won that as easily as we lost, and then to come back and really take it to East, and then to lead the whole game today.”
The fourth-place result is the highest for the Stars girls team since taking third in 2003.
“Fourth is really cool,” Blossom said. “I think by doing this, we proved we are one of the top two or three teams in the state, and hats off to the kids. We got through the adversity we had and they fought through it, and hopefully that carries over to life for them.”
Saturday’s game started like Friday’s game against East — with SoHi jumping out to an early lead while its opponent struggled with mistakes. Kerkvliet, Litchfield and Benson all had baskets in quick succession, leading to a 12-2 lead with 2 minutes, 25 seconds, left in the first quarter.
Unlike East, however, Dimond was able to work its way back into the game, making use of every possession to find points from senior Tara Thompson and Rohyn Huss. Thompson ended up with 12 points to lead the Lynx.
“After you lose that first game at state, it’s hard to get your kids motivated,” said Dimond coach Jim Young. “We’re not really playing for anything, and I understand teams spend a lot of money to come here and they want to play a second game, but the coaching is more difficult because you’re just trying to get kids to get motivated.”
Dimond cut Soldotna’s lead to three midway through the second quarter on a Neno Martinez jumper, but that would be the closest the Lynx would get.
Dimond’s biggest concern came in the form of mistakes, such as turnovers, and poor shooting. Dimond shot 21 percent (5 of 23) in the first half, and only improved marginally in the second. Overall, the Lynx put in a quarter of all their shots.
“Even though we weren’t shooting that well, we had the opportunities to be in the game,” Young said. “But we were just not getting rebounds and we had missed shots.”
The third quarter became a tug-of-war battle, as every SoHi bucket was answered with a Dimond bucket, resulting in a 36-29 lead that the Stars would have to hope was good enough.
Dimond found a temporary answer in the fourth quarter, as Dejha Canty came off the bench and managed to sneak a few crucial steals from SoHi that led to transition layups.
“She’s definitely been a spark for us late in the season,” Young said. “I would give her the sixth man of the year award if I could.”
Canty ended with four steals and 12 points. With 3:42 to go in the game, Canty came up with a steal from Benson, and ran down the court for a dish to Shameah Jones, who was fouled by Lindsey Wong. Jones converted on both free throws, closing Dimond’s deficit to 44-40.
After that, coach Blossom was doing everything he could to help his team slow the pace down and control the clock.
With two and half minutes left, Dimond was finally forced to start fouling.
Benson was first up for SoHi, hitting one of her two shots from the line, and Kerkvliet was next.
“I was out there singing a song to stop the pressure,” Kerkvliet said with a laugh. “It takes the pressure off my mind. Just whatever song comes to my mind.”
Kerkvliet hit 3 of 4 attempts from the charity stripe, and Soldotna made eight of its last 12 overall free-throw attempts in the final 2:22 to put the game out of reach. The Stars held Dimond scoreless in the final three minutes.
“We’re so used to playing aggressively and attacking, it’s tough to slow them down,” Blossom said. “They’re like caged lions sometimes, and I had to call a couple quick timeouts to get them to calm down. Benson was one of the first to really grasp like, like hey, let’s slow this down.”
After the game, Blossom said that he is more than satisfied with the weekend’s events, and even with the loss of five seniors next year, he still holds confidence that the Stars will be a contending team once again.
“I think it was just nice to come in here and get fourth place and finish strong,” Blossom said. “I’m hoping we combine with Skyview and still be strong next year and surprise some people and get here.”
Stars 52, Lynx 40
Soldotna 12 12 12 16 —52
Dimond 7 8 14 11 —40
SOLDOTNA (52) — Nelson 0 0-0 0, Benson 3 8-10 14, Litchfield 2 4-7 9, M. Wong 2 0-0 5, L. Wong 1 1-2 3, Hendrick 0 0-0 0, Kerkvliet 4 9-12 17, Miller 2 0-0 4. Totals 14 22-31 52.
DIMOND (40) — Huss 3 1-3 9, Tufaga 0 0-0 0, Martinez 1 1-2 3, Jones 0 2-3 2, Thompson 3 6-7 12, Canty 4 4-8 12, Anderson 0 0-1 0, Forrey 1 0-2 2. Totals 12 14-26 40.
3-point field goals — Soldotna 2 (Litchfield, M. Wong); Dimond 2 (Huss 2).
Team fouls — Soldotna 20; Dimond 21.