SEWARD -- When the going got tough, the tough got going.
After Anchorage Christian Schools outscored the Nikiski girls basketball team 18-7 over the first 12 minutes of the second half, the Bulldogs ended the game on a 17-5 run to win 53-41 and take their eighth District 3/3A championship in 11 years.
The crucial moment in the game came with 4:47 left in the fourth quarter, when Lucy LeBaron of ACS hit a layup to tie the game at 36-36 and complete the Lions' long climb back from a 29-18 halftime deficit.
The ACS crowd erupted. The Lions coaching staff jumped off the bench, coaxing the team to keep up the defense that had harassed the Bulldogs into 1 of 10 shooting and seven turnovers in the third quarter.
And what did Nikiski do? Relax.
"It didn't really faze me that much," said Nikiski senior Tiffany Cason, who played big minutes in the game due to the foul trouble of high-scoring junior Laura Berdahl. "We knew what we had to do.
"All of us did our little part and we came back. That just put things back in focus."
There is a quote on the back of T-shirts some of the Nikiski girls were wearing around the tournament that reads, "Teamwork is the fuel that allows common people to attain uncommon results."
Nikiski, which will be making its ninth straight appearance at state, fell back on teamwork to turn away the Lions' challenge.
After LeBaron's layup created the tie, the Bulldogs went on an 11-2 run in which four different players collected points. Dayna Pritchard closed the run with a pair of foul shots that made the score 47-38 with 2:57 left in the game.
"We don't have to have one person carry the load," Nikiski coach Ward Romans said. "That's what makes dangerous teams."
Berdahl has carried the load at times this year, but in Friday's semifinal win against Grace and Saturday's game against ACS, her minutes were significantly cut due to foul woes that gave Cason and sophomore Joy Carr a chance to shine.
However, Berdahl was in Saturday's game long enough to stake Nikiski to its first big lead. She scored six of her 14 points in a 10-0 spurt that put the Bulldogs up 19-9 with 7:30 left in the second quarter.
Nikiski, which had defeated ACS by scores of 51-40 and 66-38 earlier in the season, held that lead until half. However, the Lions turned up the defensive heat in the third quarter.
"This whole season, the third quarter has been pretty tough for us," Nikiski senior Maggie Kendall said. "We've been working on that in practice, but tonight was more of the same.
"We don't have all the kinks worked out yet."
Nikiski's lone basket in the third quarter was a 3-pointer by Sally Glaze, who paced all scorers with 20 points, with 30 seconds left in the period.
"We did our best," said ACS sophomore Kimberly Rathmann of the third quarter. "We played hard.
"Most of their key baskets came off rebounds."
Nikiski dominated ACS on the boards, getting a lot of second chance points and keeping ACS off the offensive glass.
"That's not just something we've done this year," Romans said of great rebounding. "That's always been a focus in the program."
Speaking of rebounding, Nikiski has come back to post a 20-4 record and earn a district title a year after losing four starters from a team that also won the district and finished third in state.
How did they do it? Look on the back of their T-shirts.
"This feels really good," said Kendall, who didn't get a lot of varsity minutes last year. "We have really great chemistry on this team. We're all really good friends.
"Anything can happen with teamwork."
Romans said proof of the team's chemistry came after LeBaron hit the layup to tie.
"When the gym went crazy like that, that's when, if there were egos on this team, they would have come out," he said. "Egos come out in pressure situations.
"There's no egos on this team."
ACS, which earned a trip to state Friday with a victory over Houston, received 10 points each from Corinne Berlen and Amanda Hart. The Lions will enter play in Sullivan Arena with a 15-10 record.
After the tournament, both Berdahl and Glaze were voted to the all-district team, while senior Jessica Carr made the good sport team.
Seward boys 62, ACS 48
The Seahawks said goodbye to seven seniors by winning the third-place game on their home floor.
Seniors Clint Draper, Scott Bartlett, Ryan Lewis, John Hamilton, Chris Eastman, Blake Varnell and Brian Blankenship walked off the Seahawks floor for the last time winners, but without the state trip they desired.
"It's over with," Draper said. "I'm not going to play any more basketball unless it's in a men's recreational league.
"It was good to go out the way we did, even though we would have liked to go to state."
Seward coach Chuck Boerger, the district's coach of the year, said his team did well to achieve a 12-12 record considering it lacked height and played a lot of bigger schools.
"This season started about this time last year," Boerger said. "We spent a lot of time getting ready for the season."
Grace boys 67, Houston 55
The Grizzlies boys used a run at the start of the fourth quarter to earn their second straight district title and complete an undefeated season in the league.
Grace senior Landon Libby, who would later be named MVP of the league, paced all scorers by pouring in 20 points. Edgar Smith chipped in 14 points to the winning cause, while Ryan Meier added 10.
Jeff Huston led Houston with 19 points, while Jameson Fields had 12.
Grace will enter state at 19-5, while Houston will make the trip at 17-8.
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