PALMER -- The Homer boys' basketball team took off its glass slipper Saturday night at Palmer High School and replaced it with something a little more comfortable -- dancing shoes. As in those used at the Big Dance.
The Homer Mariners are state-tournament bound after an incredible and Cinderella-like upset of top-seeded Colony Saturday night. When the Mariners were facing elimination, they came through with 77-63 victory.
"We were confident that we could do this, and we just believed in each other," said forward Richie Crum, who led a ferocious Homer rebounding attack. "We've done it the hard way all year, and we did it the hard way in the tournament. You can't count us out."
The Mariners came out gunning early, and the Knights never could respond. After a high-scoring 18-18 first quarter tie, Homer took the lead on its first possession of the second quarter. The Mariners never trailed the rest of the game.
"We shot good and rebounded good and did everything you have to do to win a game," said Sean Haynes. "We are kind of underestimated everywhere we play it seems. We beat Wasilla, played Dimond tough for three quarters and now beat Colony. Hopefully we can carry that over into the state tournament and upset another team or two."
The Mariners led 41-34 at the half and ran that lead to 10 points early in the third quarter. Colony chipped away and trailed 58-51 heading into the final eight minutes of action.
"I wasn't nervous at all in the fourth quarter because I knew how hard my guys were fighting for this," said Homer coach Billy Day. "I got real nervous when there were 12 seconds left, because I knew that we actually were going to win."
The Knights turned to Cole Magner, the Region III Player of the Year, and Mike Johnson. But the Mariners answered every Colony threat with a basket at the other end, and the Knights could not contend with Crum's and Haynes' presence in the middle. On three consecutive possessions midway through the fourth quarter, the Mariners pulled down two offensive rebounds and converted them into points.
"When you can't grab a rebound, it's hard to stop a team," said a disgruntled Magner.
With 2:57 to play, the Knights pulled to within five, 66-61. But the Mariners answered with a 11-2 run to finish the game.
Haynes was 4-4 from the foul line in the final minute, and Michael Garcia hit four key free throws late.
The victory ended a seven-year run in the state tournament for the Knights, who were upset by Kodiak in the semifinals. They are coached by Phil Engebretsen, a former Homer standout.
"Cathy Engebretsen (Phil's mother) was down here the other week, and I told her I had a feeling about this," Day said. "She said the same thing. I'm happy for our seniors who get to go to the state tournament."
The tourney is being held at the Sullivan Arena for the first time ever, and that adds more excitement, Crum said.
"Oh yeah, that's the coolest thing about it," Crum said. "We're going to the state tournament, and it is in the Sullivan. That's worth four years of work."
Haynes said the best thing about the upset is the fact that the season continues for the Mariners.
"We are having fun, and if we would have lost, the season would have been over. We get to play for another week now," Haynes said.
Kodiak and Wasilla are Region III's other two teams in the state tournament. After beating Soldotna in the semifinals Friday, the Warriors earned their first Region III title since 1992 with a 59-49 victory over Kodiak.
In the girls' bracket, Colony and Wasilla earned the top two berths to the state tournament, while the Kenai Kardinals fell victim to a fierce Palmer squad with the final berth on the line in the third-place game.
After playing back-to-back overtime games, the Kards could not hold off Palmer in the second half and fell 36-26.
"I'm disappointed that we are not going to state, but I certainly am not disappointed in what my girls did," said coach Jim Beeson, who was named the Region III Coach of the Year winner. "They did everything I asked of them, and then some more. I'm proud with what they've done."
The Kards took a 17-16 lead at halftime on a buzzer-beater by Jessi Reilly. After playing with Palmer in the first half, the Kards' lack of depth showed in the second half, as they were only able to score four field goals as Palmer cycled fresh players into the game.
"I think every team in the region knows that we only have one real scorer, and they attack us from that standpoint," Beeson said. "That's why I'm so proud of this group. They know how talented Palmer is. They are the state champs. But we were in the game for the most part. That's shows you what kind of players I have."
Palmer opened the third quarter on a 10-0 run before Erica Shinn hit a jumper with 1:57 to play. Cory Hershberger, the Kards' leading scorer, followed with a three to cut the Palmer lead to 28-22 heading into the fourth quarter, but it was as close as Kenai could get.
"I really give them a lot of credit because they battle all the time," Palmer coach Lyle Busbey said. "They had to work to get Hershberger open, and that ran time off the clock."
The Moose countered Hershberger's hot shooting with a box-and-one defensive alignment, and that made a huge difference, Beeson said.
"It was kind of them to wait until the second half to use that," Beeson said with a chuckle. "We had to really work to get our shots off, and that's why they held us to nine points in the second half."
The Knights, led by Region III Most Valuable Player winner Jessica Moore, beat the Warriors 38-32 to claim their seventh consecutive Region III crown.
"This was the toughest regional tournament, from a competition standpoint, that I can remember," said Colony coach Don Witzel. "I feel bad for Kenai, because they could have just as easily been the region champs. It was wide open, but I'm glad that we jumped up and played like we can."
Both the boys' and girls' state tournaments begin Thursday at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
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