If, as the saying holds, offense wins games but defense wins championships, both the Nikiski and Kenai girls have an invaluable weapon as they head into their respective region tournaments next week.
In a matchup of the two Kenai Peninsula Class 3-4A girls teams ranked in the latest prep poll, the visiting Bulldogs survived a furious Kardinals rally for a 38-35 victory Saturday in nonconference play.
In the boys game, Kenai earned the split with a 68-53 victory.
"That's about as good of defense as you're going to see in a girls basketball game," Nikiski coach Ward Romans said after his team ended the regular season at 18-4 overall. "We played outstanding defense, and we haven't faced anything like their man defensive pressure all year."
Nikiski's biggest defensive stop came on Kenai's last possession. The Kardinals (18-4), who had been behind by as much as 10 in the fourth quarter, were trailing 38-35 with 22.9 seconds left.
Kenai coach Jim Beeson called a play to send senior Cory Hershberger, who already had 12 points in the quarter and seconds ago had nailed a trey from 2 feet beyond the arc to make the score 36-35, off a double screen. Kenai also would have Karli Knudsen at the top of the key for a 3-point attempt.
Hershberger was open coming off the screens, but the pass to her was tipped. Hershberger recovered the ball, but the timing of the play was off. All Hershberger could manage was an awkward 3-point shot at the buzzer.
"I was supposed to be a decoy," Hershberger said. "They were passing it to Karli at the top of the key. Things just kind of broke down."
It was a fitting end to the game, because the defense of both teams spent the afternoon breaking down the offense of the other team.
For Nikiski, the trick was to find a way past the full-court pressure of Kenai's group of ball-hawk guards, including Jessi Reilly, Kristi Knudsen and Jamie Montgomery, and get the ball to a frontcourt led junior Laura Berdahl.
"They were really quick," said Nikiski sophomore point guard Sally Glaze of Kenai's backcourt. "They were the quickest team we've seen this year."
However, Berdahl, who paced all scorers with 20 points, was more than happy with the way Glaze and the backcourt handled the pressure.
"I think our point guards and wings did a pretty good job of getting it down in the post," said Berdahl, who also dominated the boards Saturday. "If we play together like we did today, I don't think anybody can stop us."
The Bulldogs also used the team concept to play tough defense, holding Hershberger to just four points until the fourth quarter and allowing just four Kardinals to score.
"She's a really good shooter," said Glaze, who guarded Hershberger. "Whenever I would get screened, we'd just switch on her.
"We played good defense as a team."
Hershberger got on track to lead the Kardinals back in the fourth. After Berdahl hit a jumper to make it 30-20 with 6:21 left in the game, Hershberger scored five points in a 7-0 Kenai spurt that cut the gap to 30-27 with 4:33 left.
However, Nikiski, getting two big buckets from Tiffany Cason and a jumper from April Lofstedt, answered with a 6-2 run to move the lead back to 36-29 with 2:30 left.
"This was a big game because our young kids answered a run late in the game from an experienced, senior team," Romans said of Kenai, which said goodbye to seniors Hershberger, Kristi Knudsen, Stephanie Arbelovsky, Jennifer Stewart, Wendi Polak and Randi Canady on senior day.
"It wasn't just the players always in the headlines like Sally and Laura. It was people like April Lofstedt, Maggie Kendall and Tiffany Cason."
Kenai managed a 6-0 run to make the score 36-35 with 25 seconds left, but Glaze hit a pair of free throws to force Kenai to look for a tying 3-pointer.
"I can't fault our effort, especially on defense," Beeson said. "Our shots just weren't going in."
Kenai boys 68, Nikiski 53
This may have been just the feel-good victory the Kardinals, who have lost close games all season, needed to spark a run in the region tournament.
Seniors Willie Castillo, Jason Kornfield, Sean Nuccio, Dustin Jung, Joel Reemtsma and Josh Overturf all scored in their last game at Kenai Central.
"This was important because we've been losing close games all season," said Kenai junior Kyle Oldring, who had 16 points. "I think this is going to spark us for regions."
Kenai (5-16) grabbed a 24-13 lead after the first quarter, but Nikiski came back to cut Kenai's lead to 36-34 at halftime.
"There was a 15- to 16-minute stretch where the guys showed what they can do when they're out there playing as a team," Nikiski coach Reid Kornstad said after his team ended its regular season at 7-15. "The rest of the time, they saw what happens when they're out there as five individuals."
The Kardinals opened the game up with a 20-4 run in the last part of the third quarter and early part of the fourth quarter.
Oldring netted six points to spark the spurt while Reemtsma, who led all scorers with 21 points, had four points during the run, which gave Kenai a 60-44 lead with 6:45 left in the game.
"We've been playing our guts out all year," Oldring said. "People started out saying we weren't going to be that good, but I've heard people say we could be a dangerous team in the region tournament."
Castillo added 10 points for the Kardinals, while Jeremy Kouf had 18 points and Jamie Queen had 13 points for Nikiski.
Kornstad also liked what he saw out of Josh Reilly.
"When he was in the play, something good usually happened," Kornstad said. "It's amazing how guys that give 100 percent have good things happen to them."
BULLDOGS GIRLS 38, KARDINALS 35
Nikiski 6 10 10 12 --38
Kenai 4 9 7 15 --35
NIKISKI (38) -- Weaver 0 0-0 0, Lofstedt 1 0-1 2, Kendall 1 0-0 2, Jo. Carr 0 0-0 0, Glaze 4 2-2 10, Berdahl 10 0-1 20, T. Cason 2 0-0 4, Je. Carr 0 0-0 0. Totals -- 18 2-5 38.
KENAI (35) -- Kr. Knudsen 0 0-0 0, Ka. Knudsen 0 0-0 0, Reilly 4 1-2 10, Montgomery 1 0-0 2, Hershberger 7 1-2 16, Arbelovsky 0 0-0 0, Stewart 0 0-0 0, Polak 0 0-0 0, Shinn 3 1-1 7, Canady 0 0-0 0. Totals -- 15 3-5 35.
3-point goals -- Reilly, Hershberger. Total fouls -- Nikiski 11, Kenai 15. Fouled out -- none.
KARDINALS BOYS 68, BULLDOGS 53
Nikiski 13 21 10 9 --53
Kenai 24 12 23 10 --68
NIKISKI (53) -- Queen 4 3-4 13, Roofe 0 0-0 0, Kouf 8 0-0 18, Reilly 4 2-4 10, Holloway 2 4-6 8, Carlson 1 0-0 2, Bowlin 0 0-0 0, Heath 1 0-0 2. Totals -- 20 9-14 53.
KENAI (68) -- Pault 0 0-0 0, Castillo 5 0-2 10, Kornfield 0 1-3 1, Nuccio 1 1-2 4, Webster 4 0-0 8, Oldring 6 1-2 16, Jung 2 0-0 4, Reemtsma 9 2-3 21, Burck 0 0-0 0, Overturf 2 0-0 4, Boyd 0 0-0 0. Totals -- 28 5-12 68.
3-point goals -- Oldring 3, Queen 2, Kouf 2, Reemtsma, Nuccio. Total fouls -- Nikiski 18, Kenai 18. Fouled out -- Queen, Holloway.
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