Julie Litchfield said she felt pressure. Fortunately for the Soldotna girls basketball team, she didn't buckle under it.
The freshman guard hit a pair of free throws with 13 seconds remaining and the Stars made a defensive stop on the ensuing possession to earn a pivotal 43-42 victory in Northern Lights Conference play at home Friday against Kodiak.
"Kelci (Benson) grabbed me and said, 'You better make these,'" Litchfield said of the game-winning free throws. "And then Kaillee (Skjold), she gave me that look like, 'If you miss these ...'"
Litchfield -- and her teammates -- can rest easy now.
On a night when she finished 4-of-5 from the line, Litchfield hauled in an offensive rebound inside the 15-second mark after Skjold missed a jumper from the top of the key with the Stars trailing 42-41. Litchfield quickly put up a shot, drawing contact.
Megan Grupp's midrange jump shot in traffic clanked out on Kodiak's final possession following Litchfield's free throws. Skjold secured the rebound and passed it to teammate Kaili Sholin as time expired.
The miss came after Joanna Garcia took an inbounds pass and dribbled the length of the floor, sending a pass to Grupp, who didn't get a clear look at the hoop.
"We didn't want her to beat us," SoHi coach Mark Tuter said of Garcia, who finished with 14 points. "We were going to double-team her if we had to."
The Stars improved to 4-3 in conference play and trail Kenai Central (5-3 conference) by one-half game with three conference games remaining.
They control their own destiny in the race for first place in the North Star Conference Southern Division.
"It's pretty awesome," Litchfield said of the win. "I'm just looking forward to everything that's going to happen for the basketball team."
Neither team led by more than six points during the second half, which included four ties and nine lead changes.
Kodiak led 40-34 with 4:12 to play, but the Stars used a 7-0 run over the next 2:25 to secure a one-point lead inside two minutes. Benson scored all four of her points during the stretch, while Skjold capped it by hitting two free throws.
Hannah Wandersee gave the Bears a 42-41 lead on a layup with 25 seconds to go after she took a pass from Garcia, who drove into the lane and found Wandersee on the left side.
That set the stage for Litchfield, who scored four of her six points from the free-throw line. Skjold and Jessie Duke scored 13 points apiece for SoHi, which visits Homer on Tuesday.
Tuter said he was proud of the team's effort top to bottom.
"We talk about learning how to win against different teams and what we have to do to win, whether it's rebounding or taking away a good scorer," he said. "What do we have to do to learn how to win, and win as a young team?
That was a veteran team we beat tonight."
Soldotna boys 64, Kodiak 55
Soldotna boys basketball coach Matt Johnson has waited all season for his team to peak.
If the Stars' most recent game is an indicator, the wait is finally over.
Back at full strength after suffering from injuries much of the year, SoHi used a hot-shooting second half to pull away for a 64-55 victory over Kodiak in Northern Lights Conference action at Soldotna on Friday.
It was the Stars' second win in as many tries, boosting their record to 4-3 in conference play with three conference games left to play. Kenai Central is 5-3 in conference play.
"Your goal all season is to peak at the right time. You build towards it, build towards it and keep telling the kids that we want our final product to be at this point," Johnson said. "We don't want to peak in December, we don't want to peak in January. We want it to be in the first week of March, and we are leading up to that point."
On Friday, the Stars took a 31-28 lead into halftime despite hitting just one 3-point shot over the first 16 minutes.
They found a rhythm over the final 16.
Zach Jackson, Ross Skjold and Evan Withrow knocked down shots from long range in the third quarter, helping the Stars build an 11-point lead entering the fourth.
Another 3 from Withrow in the fourth, in addition to one from teammate Robbie Smithwick, enabled the Stars to preserve a double-digit lead most of the final quarter. The Bears never got closer than seven points.
"We haven't shot the ball very well this year, but I don't think it reflects the kind of shooters we have on the team," Johnson said. "When those guys get clicking, their confidence gets up, they defend better, they play with higher energy. It's fun to coach and it's fun to watch."
Health has been an issue for the Stars as well.
Withrow missed practice and a game last week because of a sinus infection, while Smithwick has been slowed the past month by an ankle injury. Rarely was the entire team been together for practice the past few weeks, said Johnson, who saw the Stars lose 47-29 against powerhouse Wasilla last week.
Now the Stars are nearing full strength.
"Our continuity wasn't there the past two weeks," Johnson said. "When you can't put your guys on the floor and give them reps together, it's tough."
Withrow and Garrett Bosick scored 16 apiece against the Bears, while Jackson added 12. Ross Skjold tallied 11.
Kodiak, which finished 9-of-19 from the free-throw line, received 11 from Brian Fangonilo and Ralphy Matautia.
Meanwhile, the Stars will look to win their third straight when they visit Homer on Tuesday.
"Big confidence-builder," Johnson said of the win. "We've been up and down all year and it's been a constant growing process. Tonight was a big step forward."
Stars 43, Bears 42
Kodiak 6 11 14 11 --42
Soldotna 7 11 10 15 --43
KODIAK (42) -- Garcia 6 0-0 14, Timu 2 1-2 5, Grupp 1 2-2 4, Aquino 0 0-0 0, Juble 0 1-2 1, Pyles 0 0-0 0, Cannon 4 0-0 8, Wandersee 5 0-2 10, Lampl 0 0-0 0. Totals -- 18 4-8 42.
SOLDOTNA (43) -- Benson 2 0-0 4, Sholin 1 0-0 2, Litchfield 1 4-5 6, Munn 0 3-4 3, Skjold 3 7-9 13, Duke 5 0-0 13, Satathite 1 0-0 2. Totals -- 13 14-18 43.
3-point field goals -- Kodiak 2 (Garcia 2); Soldotna 3 (Duke 3). Team fouls -- Kodiak 14, Soldotna 9. Fouled out -- none.
Stars 64, Bears 55
Kodiak 15 13 9 18 --55
Soldotna 14 17 17 16 --64
KODIAK (55) -- Fangonilo 5 0-0 11, Cowley 3 0-1 8, Obas 0 0-0 0, Tacata 2 5-8 9, Medina 2 0-0 6, Frick 1 0-1 3, Matautia 4 3-6 11, Garner 1 0-0 2, Bezona 0 0-0 0, Hiner 2 1-4 5. Totals -- 20 9-19 55.
SOLDOTNA (64) -- Schneider 0 0-0 0, T. Fowler 1 0-0 2, Jackson 3 4-6 12, Carver 2 0-0 4, Bates, 0 0-0 0, Skjold 5 0-2 11, Smithwick 1 0-0 3, Withrow 5 4-4 16, N. Fowler 0 0-0 0, Bosick 7 2-3 16, Barkman 0 0-0 0, Young 0 0-1 0. Totals -- 24 10-16 64.
3-point field goals -- Kodiak 6 (Medina 2, Cowley 2, Fangonilo, Frick); Soldotna 5 (Jackson 2, Withrow 2, Smithwick). Team fouls -- Kodiak 18, Soldotna 16. Fouled out -- Fangonilo.
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