The big dance hasn’t started yet, but hoops fans got an early sampling of March Madness.
Soldotna sophomore Jersey Truesdell answered Kenai senior Luke Beiser’s game-tying 3-pointer in the dying seconds of a Northern Lights Conference clash with a game-winning layup to secure a 57-55 victory for the Stars on Saturday night at Soldotna High School.
The tie-breaking layup with two seconds left capped a wild contest that saw Kenai lead most of the way, only to see SoHi storm back in the fourth quarter. Kenai led by as much as 15 points in the first half.
“That was a great high school game,” stated SoHi head coach Nolan Rose with a tired sigh of relief.
The win finished off a 4-6 season in NLC play for SoHi, giving the Stars the fourth seed headed into next weekend’s conference tournament and a first-round matchup with fifth-seeded Kodiak.
The loss left Kenai winless in the conference at 0-10, handing the Kards the sixth seed for the tourney and an opening date with third seed Palmer.
Beiser stole the show with 22 points, and behind that, Preben Strende had 14 points for Kenai. David Michael led SoHi with 16 and Sam McElroy added 11.
Caleb Spence laid in a bucket with 56 seconds left to put SoHi on top 55-52, but the drama was just beginning. After a timeout, Beiser calmly dribbled up court and pulled up at the top of the arc for a booming triple with 20 seconds left to tie the game at 55-all.
However, that left enough time for the Stars to figure out a way to win. After an inbounds play, Truesdell dribbled up the 3-point line, dished off to teammate Brandon Crowder, who couldn’t find space and handed back off to Truesdell, who then pump-faked on Strende, put on a burst of speed up the lane and laid in the go-ahead bucket with two seconds left. Kenai’s last-ditch, full-court shot missed.
The shot capped a 14-5 run by SoHi in the final 5:48 to end the game. Incredibly, the go-ahead bucket was Truesdell’s only one of the game.
“It’s kind of harder than the last time (SoHi played Kenai),” Truesdell said. “It felt like shooting into an ocean (the previous time), but it was a lot tougher today.”
Rose and Kenai head coach Ken Felchle both pointed to SoHi’s defensive change in the second half, which saw the Stars switch to a half-court trap game in efforts to stall the Kards’ momentum.
“We kept grinding away at it,” Rose said. “But that changed the complexion of the game.”
Until then, SoHi had trouble containing Beiser. In the losing effort, Beiser dazzling the crowd with an array of tough shots and acrobatic plays.
“Beiser is a dude,” Rose said tongue-in-cheek. “He was killing us all game.”
Felchle said after four years of playing basketball at Kenai, Beiser has turned into one of the best players in the conference, and has proven it this year with big game after big game.
“He’s an incredible athlete,” Felchle said. “And I’ve told him this year, for us to win, he has to be great.”
Felchle explained that Saturday’s loss came down not to Kenai suffering a letdown, but rather SoHi executing their game when it counted.
“It’s a tough one to lose,” he said. “We had it, and we let it slip away.
“SoHi just made one more shot than us.”
Kenai took command early and led 24-9 midway through the second quarter. SoHi closed up the gap somewhat and trailed 31-24 at halftime.
The third quarter featured a seesaw battle with both teams trading shots and blocks. Beiser put up eight points in the quarter but Sam McElroy answered with nine for SoHi.
A putback bucket for McElroy was followed by a trey from the top of the arc from Wendell Tuisaula, which cut the deficit to 45-43 with seven minutes left in the game.
McElroy received his fourth foul early in the fourth quarter, putting him on the bench, and Strende hit a 3 with 5:55 left to push Kenai’s lead back to 50-43.
From there, the Stars began to eat up the gap again. David Michael scored five straight to cut the lead to one, and a driving layup from Eli Sheridan with 3:23 left gave SoHi its first lead since 5:29 of the first quarter.
The SoHi Senior Night celebration included Luke Trammell, McElroy, Spence, Sheridan, Tuisuala, Crowder and Chase Miller.
Soldotna girls 38, Kenai 28
Earlier, the SoHi girls capped their regular season finale with a conference win over Kenai, giving the Stars some credence to the team motto heading into next week’s region tournament.
“We’re gonna shock the world!” stated junior Brittani Blossom.
Blossom led SoHi with 14 points Saturday, including several big plays down the stretch. Blossom hit a jumper with 6:16 left in the fourth quarter to distance the Stars, then connected on a 3-pointer with 2:47 left to put SoHi up 36-23, essentially providing the dagger.
“We played smart and didn’t turn the ball over as much,” Blossom said. “We always try to limit our turnovers to less than 16 per game.”
Aliann Schmidt added 11 for SoHi and Danica Schmidt notched nine. Lexy Carrasco paced Kenai with nine points while Jaycie Calvert and Brooke Satathite had six each.
The win secured the fourth seed for the Northern Lights Conference tournament for SoHi (4-6), pairing the Stars with fifth-seeded Kenai in the first round. The loss left Kenai at 2-8 in conference play.
Wasilla claimed the NLC’s top seed with a 9-1 record, although a Saturday loss to second seed Colony gave opponents a glimmer of hope of knocking down the mighty Warriors.
“Our conference is crazy right now,” Stars head coach Kyle McFall said.
McFall said he was happy with Soldotna’s defensive production against Kenai on Saturday, but added the Stars still need to clean up some offensive mistakes.
“We mixed up our press looks and it seemed to work for us,” he said.
Kenai head coach Cary Calvert said the Soldotna defense put up a stout front, which kept Kenai’s top shooters scrambling to find other ways to score.
“I liked our offense, we were getting shots,” Calvert said. “We just got beat by a better team today.”
SoHi led 17-10 at halftime and 28-18 after three quarters. In the final eight minutes, Blossom’s clutch play helped keep the lead comfortable while Kenai found trouble connecting on numerous shot attempts.
Blossom’s 3-pointer with 2:47 left was followed by a layup by Aliann Schmidt on the next possession, all but clinching the win.
Mei Miller and Denali Wurst were celebrated on SoHi’s Senior Night.
Stars 38, Kardinals 28
Kenai 3 7 8 10 —28
Soldotna 9 8 11 10 —38
KENAI CENTRAL (28) — Calvert 2 0-0 6, Hamilton 1 0-0 2, Maw 1 0-0 2, Eurlich 0 0-0 0, Hanson 1 0-0 2, Paxton 0 0-0 0, Carrasco 4 0-0 9, Satathite 3 0-0 6, Severson 0 1-2 1. Totals 12 1-2 28.
SOLDOTNA (38) — McGillivray 0 0-0 0, Miller 0 0-2 0, Blossom 5 1-2 14, A. Schmidt 5 1-2 11, Holland 0 0-0 0, Wurst 2 0-1 4, Schneider 0 0-0 0, D. Schmidt 4 1-4 9. Totals 16 3-11 38.
3-point goals — Kenai Central 3 (Calvert 2, Carrasco 1); Soldotna 3 (Blossom 3).
Team fouls — Kenai Central 14, Soldotna 11. Fouled out — Hanson.
Stars 57, Kardinals 55
Kenai 14 17 14 10 —55
Soldotna 7 17 14 19 —57
KENAI CENTRAL (55) — Felchle 2 0-0 6, Baker 0 0-0 0, Tuttle 3 0-3 6, Beiser 9 3-4 22, Trujillo 3 1-2 7, Strende 4 3-5 14. Totals 21 7-14 55.
SOLDOTNA (57) — Truesdell 1 2-2 4, Trammell 0 1-2 1, Spence 2 2-5 6, Miller 0 0-0 0, Sheridan 4 0-0 9, Crowder 3 0-0 7, Tuisaula 1 0-0 3, Michael 6 4-6 16, McElroy 5 1-1 11. Totals 22 10-16 57.
3-point goals — Kenai Central 6 (Strende 3, Felchle 2, Beiser 1); Soldotna 3 (Sheridan 1, Crowder 1, Tuisaula 1).
Team fouls — Kenai Central 18, Soldotna 14. Fouled out — none.