Skyview's Alex Cook passes the ball under pressure from Nikiski's Brando Wik, left, and Justin Wik, right, in the third quarter against Skyview on Friday night.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
They say defense wins championships.
If that's the case, the Nikiski Bulldogs, both boys and girls, are in for a productive season.
The girls, however, have one crown under their belt already.
After an impressive performance Friday night against Skyview, the Bulldogs successfully defended their Nikiski Tip-Off Tournament title by finishing 3-0 with a 51-44 victory over North Pole on Saturday in the 19th edition of the tourney.
Eliza Chadwick, named to the all-tournament team, paced Nikiski with 18 points while fellow all-tourney team member Tasha Thompson chipped in 11.
The boys, on the other hand, finished the weekend at 2-1, losing their final game on Saturday to eventual champion West Valley, which edged the Bulldogs, 45-31.
Brando Wik and Sheridan Olson paced Nikiski with nine and eight points, respectively.
In other action Saturday, the Skyview boys topped Hooper Bay, 64-41, behind 20 points from tournament MVP Richie Shirnberg. The Skyview girls, paced by 25 from all-tournament team member Brittany Meyer, also edged Hooper Bay, 57-53.
But it was the play of both Nikiski squads on Friday that proved how effective a stout defense can be.
"It was a huge step," Nikiski girls coach Ward Romans said. "To play the type of defense that we like to think we play at Nikiski, you've got to play without fear and play on the edge and have faith in your teammates that they're going to be there to cover you and support you if you're extending like that. We did it (Friday)."
Nikiski had no trouble containing Skyview's two tallest players, Melissa Massey and Meyer, limiting them to just four and three points, respectively, as the Bulldogs went on to a convincing 50-28 win.
"There's no way around the fact that we had a game plan going in, that specifically we wanted to do some things defensively," Romans explained. "Posts played good position defense, our guards helped off, we were fearless stepping in looking to cut off people to the basket. It was a great step in the right direction of where we want to be."
Nikiski forced 25 turnovers, while committing just 15 itself, and owned the boards, 35-25. More importantly, though, the Bulldogs doubled the Panthers on the offensive glass (22-11), providing them with a plethora of opportunities to capitalize on second chances, as well as third, fourth and fifth chances.
"That was the biggest thing that we looked at, too, was they've outrebounded every team this year except for Homer. And we knew we were going to have trouble on the glass," said Skyview coach Ronnie Kier. "When they pull down five, six, seven offensive rebounds at a time, yeah, they're going to score. They're too good not to score in that situation."
One night after collecting a game-high 22 points in a win over Hooper Bay, junior Shalene Peek scored just four on Friday, but was a force under the net, helping the Bulldogs dominate the glass and get extra looks.
"We hope that that's kind of a trademark of the program," Romans said. "Great effort, defensive rebounding and then shoot open shots when they're there."
A 7-0 Bulldogs run to open and close the first quarter set the tone for the rest of the game.
Diving everywhere for loose balls and playing a more aggressive and tenacious game than their opponent, the Bulldogs took a commanding 24-10 lead midway through the second when Chadwick who turned in game highs of 20 points and nine rebounds and Samantha Rorrison canned back-to-back 3-pointers, the latter coming when Rorrison found herself wide open at the top of the arc as Romans shouted to let it fly.
"That's a mark of a coachable team. They want to do exactly what they're told. They want to do right and they want to be successful together," Romans said. "In 19 years of coaching here, we're as deep as we've ever been. I can go into the bench down to nine, and 3A teams usually don't have that luxury. We go down to our ninth player, there's not a drop off defensively, where you go, 'Oh. We've got to cover for somebody.' That's a big deal."
Coaching a young team with just two seniors and four juniors, Kier knew exactly what the Panthers were getting into.
"I don't know what Ward does. I need to buy secrets from him or something because he gets girls to play and when you're not playing them, it's fun to watch," he said. "If there's one thing that I love about Ward Romans' teams is that they love to play basketball. We're trying to get our girls to realize that, too. That if there's a passion for the game, good things happen."
Nikiski's Justin Wik battles for a rebound in the third quarter of Friday night's Nikiski Tip-Off Tournament game against Skyview.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
After a 56 percent (5-of-9) performance from the field in the second, Nikiski stretched its lead to 38-22 after a trey by Abby Chadwick. Another basket by Rorrison and a floater in the final seconds by Eliza Chadwick provided the Bulldogs with a comfortable 19-point lead after 24 minutes.
Both teams, however, went ice cold in the fourth, Nikiski hitting just 1-of-12 shots while the Panthers sank only 1-of-9.
It didn't matter to Nikiski, though, as they were already headed in the direction of another tournament title.
And afterward, Romans had high praise for Kier, too.
"Ronnie does a great job. He threw multiple sets at us. It wasn't that we came down, we drew up the one play they had and we defended it," he said. "He kept switching and we had to keep communicating and switching and he was attacking us from different angles, trying to go high-low. And our kids just kept adjusting and kept communicating."
After starting the season 2-4, each loss coming against 4A opponents, Romans is thrilled to open the new year with three consecutive wins.
"The thing that I'm so excited about is the step we took collectively for a team that is pretty inexperienced collectively with varsity minutes. That's a big deal," he said. "As a coach, you walk away from the game going, 'They see it.' And that's a big deal
"And you can coach from that point on. But until they get to the point where they get out on the edge and play that way, it's an unknown."
And the same goes for the boys.
Nikiski limited the 6-foot-5 Shirnberg, Skyview's most potent weapon, to just eight points in the first half Friday while building as much as a 14-point lead, and then used a smothering defense to hold off a late Panthers' rally in claiming a 47-39 victory.
"I think a lot of it was just the atmosphere that a local game provides," Bulldogs coach Reid Kornstad said of his team's improved defense. "But it really ultimately comes down to the decision that the boys made."
In other tourney action Friday, the North Pole girls topped Hooper Bay, 67-48, and the West Valley boys also beat Hooper Bay, 71-38.
But Nikiski's performance was something to see.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 17-9 lead after eight minutes, all-tournament team junior Evan Holloway pouring in eight of his team-high 19 points in the period.
"Evan has really grown up a lot this year," Kornstad explained. "He's made a decision to just really believe that we love him and care about him and he's just going to do what he's told. The freedom that that has provided him has transferred into great play on the floor."
Senior captain Josh Lofquist scored five consecutive points in the second, extending Nikiski's lead to 25-11, and the Bulldogs forced seven turnovers in the period as they entered the locker room with an 11-point cushion.
But Shirnberg wouldn't be silenced for long, collecting six of his game-high 27 points to begin the third and trimming the deficit to six, the closest the Panthers had crept since there was one minute left in the opening period.
"We did a good job on him and he still scored 27 on us," Kornstad said of Shirnberg. "I was just thankful he was in a little bit of foul trouble and that we had a little bit of a cushion at the end."
Shirnberg later added a three-point play and Alex Cook sank 1-of-2 free throws to make it 29-27 with 2:23 remaining in the third.
But Holloway, who spent roughly three minutes on the bench after injuring his ankle, tossed up a frantic behind-the-back shot that fell through the net just before the buzzer and the Bulldogs owned a 33-27 edge entering the fourth.
"It was huge. We run a play at the end to make sure we take the last shot. The plan is not usually for the ball to end up back in his hands after a miss," Kornstad said. "But he took it early enough and stayed with it enough that it ended up in his hands and up and in."
Once again, a slow starter according to Skyview coach Red Goodwin, Shirnberg pulled down the rebound off his own miss and put it back in to begin the fourth and added four more points over the next two minutes.
"He's a monster. There's no team that can cover him ... There's nobody that can stop him," Goodwin said of his big man. "But our problem is trying to get him the ball. The key to it is, we talk about inside-out. They start triple-teaming him. If you kick it back and we start hitting some shots, it makes it harder to double down on him."
Nikiski wasn't about to cave, though.
Holloway scored five points down the stretch, Wik chipped in three and the Bulldogs pulled off their biggest win "in a while."
"It was fun," Kornstad said. "We're celebrating."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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