Bristol Bay's Mason King dribbles the ball in the second quarter of Friday's Peninsula Conference championship at Skyview High School.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
PALMER An unwelcome guest from the Kenai Peninsula crashed the Matanuska-Susitna valley's Northern Lights Conference party Friday night, dancing into the school's first state tournament appearance in six years.
Seldovia's Levi Harkness looks to pass the ball as Bristol Bay's Brycin Pacheco and Michael Jedlicka defend in the first quarter of Friday's Peninsula Conference championship at Skyview High School.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai Central avenged a 29-point loss to Wasilla less than a month ago with a 12-point win over the Warriors in their own back yard, setting up a date with Colony in the boys final Saturday. The Kardinals kept up the solid play against the Knights, falling 55-50 as Colony won its first conference crown since 2005.
Kenai coach Jim Beeson said his team's previous meeting with the Warriors may have actually helped the Kardinals in Friday's 59-47 win.
"I told them after that game I would rather lose by 30 than by one or two," Beeson said.
Though the Kardinals entered the NLC tournament as the No. 1 seed from the Southern Division, Beeson said he felt like most people the Warriors included would take Kenai for granted in the semifinals against the defending NLC and state champions.
"The only people expecting us to give them a basketball game was us," he said.
Wasilla also knocked Kenai into the consolation round last season, and early in Friday's game it looked like the Warriors would again chase the Kardinals out of the winner's bracket. Wasilla led by as many as eight points in the first quarter, eventually taking a 16-10 lead after the first eight minutes of the game.
But unlike Wasilla's 89-60 thrashing earlier this season, the Warriors weren't red-hot from the floor Friday night. Instead of raining jump shots down on the helpless Kardinals, Wasilla more often than not found the iron unkind, shooting just 37 percent for the game.
Still hanging around after one quarter, the Kardinals started to take over the second. Kenai finished the first half on an 18-8 run, capped by a Nate Saltzgiver 3-pointer that gave the Kardinals a one-point halftime lead. Cory Toombs sparked Kenai with a trio of three-pointers in the quarter. Kenai hit six threes in the game, including big shots from downtown by Daniel Gustkey and Nate Byrd. As the momentum began to turn, Wasilla collapsed. Kenai opened up the third quarter like they'd ended the second, and the Warriors were unable to answer. Instead, Wasilla began forcing shots from the perimeter and making one-on-one drives to the basket that often resulted in turnovers or charging calls.
Wasilla coach Ryan Engebretsen said it was easy to see the difference between the two Wasilla-Kenai games this season.
"(In the first game) we shot 63 percent, our guys shared the ball, we stayed strong emotionally and mentally," he said. "We weren't shooting the ball well today and weren't tough enough to handle it."
Toombs led Kenai with 19 points and 11 rebounds, the latter stat perhaps more important for an undersized Kenai team that has struggled on the boards this year.
"We just watched some film today and realized we have to box out if we want to win," Toombs said.
Byrd added 15 points for the Kardinals, displaying rare ballhanding and shooting abilities for a big man. At 6-foot-2, Byrd is one of Kenai's tallest players, yet he spent most of the evening breaking down defenders and launching midrange pull-up jumpers.
"He's such a matchup problem for people because he can shoot the basketball," Beeson said.
The Warriors lost the team's leading scorer, Dexter Pearce, early in the fourth quarter when the senior guard was whistled for his fifth foul. Pearce, who scored 30 against Kenai the first time around, picked up a technical foul on his way off the floor for criticizing the referees. Less than a minute later, Tyler Johannes, who led Wasilla with 10 points Friday, got his fifth foul, leaving Wasilla without two starters and trailing by double digits late in the game.
Shortly afterward, Engebretsen got a technical of his own, effectively signaling the game's end.
"We just didn't play basketball today," the first-year Wasilla head coach said.
Kenai's win was a big one both for the Southern Division (which hasn't had a NLC tournament winner since the SoHi girls in 1993) and history buffs, as the Kardinals' last NLC semifinals victory came over Colony in 2002 when the Knights were coached by Engebretsen's older brother, Phil.
The younger Engebretsen made no excuses for Friday's loss, which sent Wasilla into the consolation round needing a pair of wins Saturday to return to the state tournament.
"They were the better team tonight. That's my only thought, they were the better team," he said.
Free-throw shooting was the most glaring difference in the game. While Kenai shot 40 percent from the field and made the same amount of field goals as Wasilla, the Kardinals got to the line 22 times compared to just five for the Warriors. Kenai made 15 of those foul shots, hitting 13 in the second half alone.
Cory Toombs said Kenai's players never lost confidence in themselves, even after struggling through a late-season swoon that began with the Wasilla loss and continued with a defeat to SoHi in the final conference game of the year.
"We just know we can rely on our teammates to make big shots," Toombs said. "Everyone can shoot."
The win gave Kenai's large senior class their first taste of victory over the Warriors, a team Kenai has had trouble with against in recent years. It also spoiled what could have been a Colony-Wasilla final in both the boys and girls brackets and put the Kardinals in the big dance for the first time since 2002 a fact Kenai players and fans celebrated long after the final whistle had blown at Palmer on Friday night.
Listening in on Cory Toombs' post-game media interview, senior Nate Byrd said he had just one thing to add to his teammate's statement.
"We're going to state!"
Colony boys 55, Kenai 50
Nobody said it would be easy.
Holding off a spirited challenge from Kenai, Colony rolled to its 19th consecutive victory.
"We played for 32 minutes and they played for 32 minutes," Colony coach Jeff Bowker said following his team's win. "I thought it was a terrific basketball game."
The Knights never led by more than nine points in a game that wasn't decided until the final seconds, when NLC Most Valuable Player Jaron Murphy hit two free throws to ice the game.
"We were in the basketball game the whole way," Kenai coach Jim Beeson said. "We played very well."
Murphy and John Palmer each scored 12 points to lead the Knights, which got at least two points from all nine players that entered the game. Grant Niver had seven points and 10 boards for Colony, Matt Stearman had nine points, Cody Huggins and Josh Moseley had four each, Doug Gray had three and Chris Scott and Antone Zagars chipped in two each.
The Kardinals were led by 17 points and 10 rebounds from Cory Toombs. Nate Byrd finished with 11 points for Kenai, Daniel Gustkey had 10, Nate Saltzgiver scored six, Bill Chimphalee had four and Zach Beeson added two.
Colony led by six at the half, but Kenai opened up the third quarter on a 12-5 run, taking the lead at 29-28 on a Saltzgiver 3-pointer midway through the quarter. Kenai hit seven treys in the game, six of them coming in the second half.
Colony retook the lead on a Jaron Murphy layup late in a gritty quarter that ended with the Knights clinging to a 35-34 lead heading into the fourth.
That's when Colony's size advantage inside began to pay dividends. Center Matt Stearman opened the fourth with a pair of buckets, and forward Josh Moseley put the Knights up 42-36 when he got free underneath for an easy deuce.
"There was just a little stretch in the fourth quarter when we didn't play very good post defense," Beeson said. "Against a good team like Colony, you can't do that."
Colony pushed its lead to as many as 10 points before Kenai got late 3-pointers from Byrd, Toombs, Gustkey and Toombs again to cut the lead to 53-50 with 4 seconds left, but Jaron Murphy hit both his free throws to finish things off.
"I liked the fact that our guys battled all the way," Bowker said of his team, which turned the ball over just four times in the second half while forcing Kenai into 11.
The win was Colony's 19th in a row on the season, and will likely cement a No. 1 seed at the state tournament in two weeks time when the final Alaska School Activities Association WPI rankings come out. Colony entered the NLC tournament as the state's top-ranked team according to the WPI, and the Knights have lost just once to an Alaska opponent this season.
But Kenai gave it their best shot, and Beeson said his team has no reason to feel sorry for themselves after giving the Knights a difficult time Saturday night.
"They had to earn everything they got," Beeson said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at 352-2265 or email@example.com
KNIGHTS 55, KARDINALS 50
Colony 15 8 12 20 55
Kenai 10 7 17 16 50
COLONY (55) Zagars 1 0-1 2, Huggins 1 1-2 4, Murphy 3 6-8 12, Palmer 3 6-8 12, Scott 1 0-0 2, Niver 3 0-0 7, Gray 1 0-0 3, Moseley 1 2-3 4, Stearman 4 1-2 9. Totals: 18 16-24 55.
KENAI (50) Saltzgiver 2 1-1 6, Chimphalee 2 0-0 4, Byrd 5 0-0 11, Toombs 7 0-2 17, Beeson 1 0-0 2, Gustkey 4 0-0 10. Totals: 21 1-3 50.
Three-point field goals -- Colony 3 (Gray, Niver, Huggins), Kenai 7 (Toombs 3, Gustkey 2, Byrd, Saltzgiver). Total fouls -- Colony 15, Kenai 22. Fouled out -- Toombs.
KARDINALS 59, WARRIORS 47
Kenai 10 18 18 13 59
Wasilla 16 11 8 12 47
KENAI CENTRAL (59) Ferguson 0 0-0 0, Rabung 0 0-0 0, Saltzgiver 1 6-6 9, Kiefer 0 0-0 0, Chimphalee 0 0-0 0, Byrd 6 2-4 15, Toombs 6 4-8 19, Libert 0 0-0 0, Beeson 2 0-0 4, Lazaro 1 0-0 2, Gustkey 3 3-4 10, Bisset 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 15-22 59.
WASILLA (47) Gray 1 0-0 2, Kroom 0 2-2 2, Sliwa 2 0-0 5, Lavern 4 0-0 9, Pearce 1 3-3 5, Johannes 5 0-0 10, Green 3 0-0 7, Flowers 2 0-0 5, Knowles 1 0-0 2, Green 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 5-5 47.
3-point goals Kenai 6 (Toombs 3, Saltzgiver 1, Byrd 1, Gustkey 1); Wasilla 4 (Sliwa 1, Lavern 1, Green 1, Flowers 1). Team fouls Kenai 12, Wasilla 19. Fouled out Byrd, Pearce, Johannes.
Boys first team: Cory Toombs, Ken; Dexter Pearce, Was; Adrese LaVern, Was; Grant Niver, Col; T.J. Fullmer, Pal; Nate Byrd, Ken; Jon Bryant, Kod; John Palmer, Col; Doug Gray, Col; Richie Shirnberg, Sky.
MVP: Jaron Murphy, Col.
Boys second team: Bryce Jacobson, Pal; Brad Blossom, SoHi; Liam Andrus, SoHi; Daniel Gustkey, Ken; Nate Saltzgiver, Ken; Shane Green, Was; David Cratty, Kod; Mike Odell, Kod
Coach of the Year: Jeff Bowker, Col.
Girls first team: Allie Grazulis, Col; Paige Blackburn, SoHi; Alex Coon, Col; Ashley Swetzof, Pal; Alysa Horn, Kod; Shelby Fulton, Was; Mattie Cox, Pal; Karen Senette, Sohi; Reba Temple, Homer; Kyla Steward, Ken
MVP: Jenna Johnson, Was
Girls second team: Piper Daugharty, Hom; Britany Mayer, Sky; Kara Larson, Col; Geneva Ratcliff, Pal; Kelsey Cottle, Was; Tara Garrod, Col
Coach of the Year: Jeannie Hebert-Truax, Wasilla
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