Shadowed by her parents and holding a single red rose, senior Raquel Young stood at midcourt and hugged her teammates one by one.
Senior night belonged to the veteran post player. Kenai Central's leading scorer put the Kardinals on her back once more, and this time she carried them to a division title.
Young scored 22 points and Morgan Wensley added 15 as the Kards earned a 49-32 win over Soldotna to win the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division regular-season title Saturday on senior night at Kenai Central.
What worked for Young?
"Just the rhythm of the game," she said. "You get with it and score."
It was one of Kenai Central's better all-around efforts this season.
The Kards added some new wrinkles defensively, showing different looks nearly every possession, which prevented SoHi from finding a rhythm. The Stars committed 26 turnovers and managed just 12 field goals -- seven of which came from Kaillee Skjold, who scored a game-high 20 points.
No other Star had more than four.
"Soldotna is a high-powered offense," Kenai Central coach Stacia Rustad said. "So for us to hold them like we did, I couldn't be more proud."
The game was in doubt through 24 minutes despite the fact the Kards led most of the way. Kenai Central took a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter, pulling away thanks to an 18-8 run.
SoHi committed 15 turnovers in the second half and managed just five points as a team outside Skjold, who poured in 11 of her 20 over the final 16 minutes.
Carolyn Kiefer added 10 points for the Kards -- six in the second half.
Allie McGahan, one of the squad's four seniors, played with a brace on her ankle after sitting out Tuesday's game against Skyview and was efficient at point guard.
She said senior night couldn't have gone better.
"This is what we wanted," McGahan said. "We wanted to beat them, we wanted to play well, we played as a team and that's what makes it so awesome."
The Kards (15-6 overall, 7-3 conference) earn a No. 1 seed to the NLC tournament, which begins Thursday at Homer High School. Kenai Central opens against either Kodiak or Palmer. SoHi, meanwhile, is seeded No. 2. The brackets will be released Monday.
Three squads advance to the Class 4A state tournament from the NLC, and Rustad said Kenai Central, SoHi, Palmer and Kodiak are likely to fight for the third berth.
Wasilla, undefeated in conference play, and Colony are widely considered favorites to earn the first two spots.
Rustad said the squad is playing its best basketball of the season, but she isn't taking anything for granted with the conference tournament looming.
"We are playing well when we should be," Rustad said. "They are fired up. I have got girls who will do whatever it takes to win game. It makes my job easy. They make me look like I know what I am doing because they just get after it."
Following the game, Kenai Central's seniors joined their parents on the court and bid farewell to the gym they've called home for the past four seasons.
"I wouldn't want to coach any other team or any other kids because right now I have a gold mine with these 12 kids," Rustad said. "They work hard every single day and you can see the progression they have made through their season."
Kenai Central boys 69, Soldotna 55
Before the season, during the season and in the days leading up to the most pivotal game of the season, Kenai Central boys basketball coach Ken Felchle said Soldotna was the team to beat in the Northern Lights Conference Southern Division.
On Saturday, Kenai Central became the new team to beat.
The Kards dethroned their crosstown rivals atop the NLC South with a decisive 69-55 win on senior night at Kenai Central.
"It feels great," Felchle said. "I told the guys that until somebody dethroned them, they were the team to beat. They've been working really hard and got the job the done today."
The victory gives Kenai Central the regular-season division title and a No. 1 seed heading into the NLC tournament, which begins Thursday in Homer. SoHi, meanwhile, drops to the No. 2 seed.
Brackets will be released Monday, but Felchle expects the Kards to face Kodiak in the first round. SoHi coach Matt Johnson is working under the assumption the Stars will face Colony.
Three teams advance to state from the tournament.
Kenai Central took a 25-12 lead through eight minutes in Saturday's title-deciding game and never looked back.
The Kards were 10-of-17 from the field in the first, hitting three consecutive 3-pointers near the end of the quarter.
At halftime, the lead was 39-20.
"A lot of credit goes to Kenai," said Johnson, whose squad finished 5-5 in conference play, including two losses to Kenai Central. "They came out with a lot emotion, played really well defensively and they hit shots."
Bo Reilly scored 11 of his 13 in the first half, and Colton Hayes had nine over the first 16 minutes.
Kenai Central used a balanced scoring attack to hold off the Stars, who never got closer than 13 in the second half.
Kai Risung added 14 for Kenai Central (12-10 overall, 7-3 conference), while AJ Hull posted 13. Tyler Spalding, a senior, had nine.
Knowing the division title was on the line, Hull was eager for Saturday's game.
"It just gave us that more motivation to come out and play hard," he said. "We just went out and played hard and made the shots we needed to. The fans were great and it was loud."
Ten players scored for the Stars, led by Cory Carver's 14. Zach Jackson tallied 13, and Evan Withrow, who was in foul trouble much of the second half, settled for eight.
The Stars scored 22 points in the fourth, hitting three of their four 3-pointers.
"Once you're down 20, you're in a tough position," Johnson said. "At that point you're asking for a lot to crawl back into the game."
Kardinals 49, Stars 32
Soldotna 10 6 8 8 --32
Kenai Central 10 10 11 18 --49
SOLDOTNA (32) -- Skjold 7 6-9 20, Benson 1 0-0 2, Satathite 1 1-4 3, Sholin 0 0-0 0, Duke 1 1-3 3, Litchfield 2 0-0 4, Hutching 0 0-0 0, Munn 0 0-0 0. Totals -- 12 8-16 32.
KENAI CENTRAL (49) -- McGahan 1 0-4 2, Beeson 0 0-2 0, Kiefer 5 0-0 10, Chay 0 0-0 0, Dunlap 0 0-0 0, Kelley 0 0-0 0, Wensley 6 1-2 15, Young 7 8-10 22. Totals -- 19 9-18 49.
3-point field goals -- Soldotna none; Kenai Central 2 (Wensley 2). Team fouls -- Soldotna 18, Kenai Central 18. Fouled out -- Skjold, Wensley.
Kardinals 69, Stars 55
Soldotna 12 7 14 22 --55
Kenai Central 25 14 11 19 --69
SOLDOTNA (55) -- Schneider 1 0-0 2, Fowler 0 3-4 3, Jackson 4 4-5 13, Carver 5 1-4 14, Bates 1 0-0 2, Skjold 1 0-0 2, Smithwick 1 1-4 3, Withrow 3 2-2 8, N. Fowler 0 0-0 0, T. Fowler 0 3-4 3, Bosick 2 0-0 4, Young 2 0-0 4. Totals -- 20 11-19 55.
KENAI CENTRAL (69) -- Risung 6 2-4 14, Ziehmer 2 0-0 4, Landry 0 2-4 2, Hull 5 2-6 13, T. Spalding 3 3-6 9, Reilly 4 3-4 13, Wensley 1 0-0 2, Hayes 4 2-2 12. Totals -- 25 14-26 69.
3-point field goals -- Soldotna 4 (Carver 3, Jackson); Kenai Central 5 (Reilly 2, Hayes 2, Hull). Team fouls -- Soldotna 21, Kenai Central 18. Fouled out -- Withrow, Bosick.
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