Kenai's Casey Coupchiak is too late to block a shot from Soldotna's Karen Senette in the fourth quarter Thursday at KCHS.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai's Nate Byrd missed four of his first five shots and eight of his final nine attempts in Thursday night's Northern Lights Conference showdown against rival Soldotna.
Unfortunately for the Stars, though, it was Byrd's four straight buckets midway through the second quarter that turned out to be the difference.
The senior poured in 13 points, including eight straight that instantly transformed a slim five-point lead into an 11-point cushion, and senior Cory Toombs scored a game-high 21 points as the Kardinals staved off a late SoHi charge for a 56-49 victory at Kenai Central High School.
"To be honest with you," Stars coach Chris Hanson said, "I think the big difference in the game was letting Nate Byrd get going a little bit there in the second quarter."
Clinging to a two-point lead after eight minutes, Kenai's James Libert scored five points and Toombs added four in helping the Kardinals (11-2, 4-0 NLC) to a 20-15 edge with 4:53 remaining in the half.
After starting 0-for-3 from the field before sinking his first shot in the final minutes of the first, Byrd persevered.
A hanging floater off the glass followed by an outside jumper gave Kenai a six-point lead, but Byrd wasn't done yet. He sank a 3-pointer and added a layup off a perfect driving feed from Toombs as the Kardinals suddenly jumped in front 29-18 with just over two minutes left in the half.
"Nate's got a shooter's mentality. He's just going to keep on shooting. If you ask him he'll tell you, 'The next one's going to go in.' And he believes that," said Kenai coach Jim Beeson. "That was huge. ... That little stretch there where he just kind of took over the game and scored eight straight points."
The Stars, who are now 0-1 in conference play, went into halftime trailing by nine. They emerged a different team.
Opening the second half on a tear, SoHi canned seven of its first nine shots, two by Michael Bauder, in taking a 36-34 lead, its first since they owned a 9-7 advantage after opening the game on a 5-0 run.
"We just didn't come out ready to play the third quarter," Beeson explained. "We came out and let them right back in the game, they actually got ahead by two.
"To our credit, we responded and we didn't panic and we hung around and hung around and took the lead and then kind of kept the lead."
Following Soldotna's 11th turnover of the game with nearly three minutes left in the third, Toombs and Daniel Gustkey led Kenai on a 10-2 charge, Toombs beginning the stretch with three points and Gustkey concluding it with seven of his 11 points.
"Against them you just can't turn the ball over, you can't give them the ball because they're pretty dangerous on the offensive end," Hanson said. "If you give them too many opportunities, they're going to beat you."
That's exactly what happened.
After Toombs opened the fourth with a slicing layup and SoHi's Liam Andrus trimmed the deficit to four with two of his team-high 14 points, Kenai capitalized on a pair of missed layups by Andrus and Ryan Shelton (six points). Senior Bill Chimphalee canned his only shot of the day from just inside the 3-point line in putting the Kardinals in front by five with roughly five minutes to play.
"He hit a tough shot right here," Beeson said. "It was the only shot he took. And he just pulled up and shot it just like he knew it was going in and it did. I thought he really did a good job for us."
Andrus made it 49-45 when he hit 1-of-2 free throws, but Byrd gave his team a six-point edge again when he hit a jumper with a hand in his face after missing six consecutive shots.
"It's a tough match up for them because he can shoot the perimeter shot and he can go off the dribble," Beeson explained. "Their big kids have a hard time matching him up and you put a little guy on him, he posts up and scores in the post. He's a very tough matchup to play against."
The Stars then missed five of their next six shots from the field and Kenai put the game away with a 5-for-7 performance from the foul line in the final 3:21.
Even with senior captain Nate Saltzgiver hitting just 1-of-3 shots for two points, the Kardinals remained unbeaten in the NLC, giving them the inside track to the Southern Division title with six games remaining.
"We have the ability on any given night to have two or three different people every night being our leading scorer, which is a good problem to have," Beeson said. "This was a big one because now it puts all the pressure back on (Soldotna) because they've got to beat us when we play in the last game of the year to have any kind of a chance at all. ... It's big because anytime you control your own destiny it's a lot easier and we are now."
Kenai boys, SoHi girls get winsPlaying without senior post Paige Blackburn, the Stars kept it close in the first half before exploding for a 21-1 run in the third quarter en route to a relatively easy Northern Lights Conference win Thursday at Kenai.
"We were trying to just be a little more aggressive on the defensive end," SoHi coach Mark Tuter said. "We were hoping to get out of the first half without too many fouls and we got a couple too many. But we did OK, so we could really kind of turn up the pressure in the third quarter."
Knotted at eight after the first, Soldotna's Shelly Barker (nine points) ran off five consecutive points for a 16-10 advantage and Jessi Stenga capped an 11-4 run with a layup with under two minutes to play in the half.
A baseline drive by Kenai's Adrianna Garcia with 50 seconds left sent the Kardinals (7-6, 1-1) into the locker room down by eight, something that pleased coach Ken Felchle.
"We're within eight points of a very good basketball team at halftime and defensively we kept our composure in the first two quarters, we kept them in front of us and offensively we struggled at times but we were executing on the offensive end," he said.
Soldotna (8-4, 2-0) didn't keep it that way for long, though.
Six of Kenai's 29 turnovers to open the third led to buckets by five different Stars and SoHi stretched the lead to 18 only 2:17 into the frame.
"You can't do that to a basketball team, not against that quality of a basketball team," Felchle said of the turnovers. "We had to play catchup to begin with, with eight points, but 16 points is a lot different than eight points. Then from there, our motivation level just went down and just didn't get it back.
"The third quarter killed us."
SoHi's Shelby Dykstra then capped a 43 percent (10-of-23) performance from the field for the Stars in the third period with six of her 14 points in the final 4:19.
"We hit our layups. The first half there I think we missed about six wide open layups and that makes a huge difference because when you miss a couple you get tighter and tighter and make a couple, you kind of get looser," Tuter said. "But they did make up our mind that we were going to turn up the pressure just a little bit and jump the passing lanes a little bit more."
Kenai made it respectable in the fourth as Adriana Taylor and Lierin Flanagan each scored four points in closing the game 11-for-41 (27 percent) from the field while SoHi finished 23-of-63 (37 percent).
"This is the first time in four years I think they haven't played without Paige Blackburn in there. So we were kind of looking and thinking, 'What can we do?' If you get in trouble you can always go to Paige in the middle and that's a pretty good option," Tuter said of his star center, who was on a recruiting trip at the Air Force Academy in Colorado. "That option wasn't there, but Karen Duffy (five points) did a really good job for us (Thursday).
"This is always nice to beat Kenai at Kenai," he added. "That's a very nice win for us."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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