Although the Cook Inlet Academy boys basketball team went undefeated last season en route to a Class 2A state title, that crown did not come easily.
In the semifinals, current CIA senior Jeremy Franchino nailed a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give his squad a one-point victory over Unalakleet.
This season, that state title figures to be even tougher for the Eagles to obtain.
Aside from the Unalakleet game, the Eagles enjoyed an average of a 14-point margin of victory in their other two state tournament games last year.
CIA, which has three state titles in its history and nine state appearances in the last 11 years, lost three starters from last year’s team. The Eagles have a 14-9 record heading into the tournament.
“We’re expecting three tough games,” said first-year coach Greg Bell. “All the games should be really close this year.”
One of CIA’s losses this year came to opening round opponent Yakutat. CIA lost to Yakutat at home by one point in overtime on Feb. 13.
“We traded baskets with them right down to the end,” Bell said of the Yakutat game. “It came down to defense who could get the stops and the rebounds.”
The game showcased CIA’s defensive problems this season. Bell said his team has no problems scoring points. He said early in the season, his team was relying too much on offensive talent.
Lately, CIA dug in on defense and played some of its best basketball in winning its second straight Peninsula Conference title last weekend in Bristol Bay.
“In close games, we wouldn’t be able to get the stops,” said senior Mike Kytonen, a returning starter from last year. “We’ve gotten serious about defense.
“We don’t have to outscore everyone. It doesn’t have to come down to who takes the last shot.”
In addition to playing better defense, Franchino said the Eagles are playing better as a team.
“Before, one or two guys would play each game,” Franchino said. “Everybody is playing now.”
CIA has had to make numerous adjustments after last year’s perfection. Graduated seniors Blake Gabriel, a Class 1A-2A first team all-state player, and Brian Beeson, a third team all-state player, left a big void in the paint.
“We’re a lot different,” Franchino said of last year’s and this year’s teams. “We don’t have a good, established low-post presence we can go to consistently. That hurts.
“What helps is we do have a lot better guard play.”
Bell said some of the team’s up-and-down play came from searching for a lineup and playing style that would best suit this year’s team.
“I felt like we were playing our best basketball at regions,” Bell said. “We really stepped up our defense. We’re right where we need to be.”
Bell also said it helps to have two returning starters from a state championship team. Kytonen said he is trying to provide an example to his team by showing maturity and leadership.
“It’s not something to get too excited about,” he said of playing at state. “You can’t play all emotional. You have to stay under control.”
Kytonen also said it helps to have a clutch player like Franchino.
“We know we have a go-to guy,” he said. “Every team wants a go-to player, and we have one.”
The tournament is being played under a new format this year. In the past, the games have been Thursday, Friday and Saturday at Service High School in Anchorage.
This year, the games will be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Opening round and consolation games will be at Service, but the semifinals and championship will be at the Sullivan Arena.
Kytonen said that if his team makes the semifinals and finals, playing in the Sullivan Arena will be cool, but it also will be a bit odd because there probably won’t be a lot of people in the big arena.
Franchino said regardless of where he is playing, he is not happy about playing on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.
“There are a lot of families that like to follow us to this tournament, and it’s not practical for them to do that this year,” Franchino said. “It’d be hard to take that much time off of work. Then, if you’ve got kids in school, you’ll also have to pull those kids out of school.”
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