With just more than two minutes remaining of a back-and-forth first quarter in a Class 4A state quarterfinal contest, Soldotna's Matt Grubb drained a 3-pointer, drew the foul and hit the free throw in staking the Stars to a four-point lead entering the second.
The unconventional four-point play held a lot more meaning than merely making it a two-possession game.
"That just made the basket huge for me," the senior laughed. "It felt like any shot I threw up is going to go in after that. It was pretty big."
It translated into something else for fellow senior Liam Andrus.
"I was thinking, 'We're winning this game,'" he said immediately. "Yeah, that's basically what's going through my mind.
"Matt never does that," he added with a chuckle.
Grubb also never scores 24 points. And Soldotna never wins a first-round game at the Class 4A state tournament.
That is, until Thursday night.
Grubb's career high in points on 9-of-14 shooting, 19 more from Andrus and a 51 percent performance from the field equaled history for the Stars at Sullivan Arena when they knocked off Lathrop, 66-45, in advancing to today's state semifinal.
"I feel that, yeah, that was maybe one of my best games of my career," said Grubb, who also dished out four assists. "That was perfect timing."
But it all started with that four-point play, something rarely seen in high school basketball.
From there, Grubb owned the floor, and the hoop.
"That was the best game he's ever had," Andrus said. "Right off the bat he got going, so that just carried him through the entire game and he was able to not let off."
Soldotna, which edged Lathrop on a buzzer-beater in January, not only won a first-round game for the first time in school history, but also became just the second boys team from the Kenai Peninsula since 1998 to win an opening game at the Class 4A state tourney after Kenai shocked Dimond in overtime last year.
The Stars, however, weren't even close to needing five more minutes to steal this one.
"Our kids played with the mentality that they were going to put a team away. And I think that's a huge step in going from a good team to a really good team," said first-year SoHi coach Matthew Johnson. "And when you can put a good team away, and that's a tough thing to do against an athletic team, a team that can shoot. It's tough to put a team away and our guys did that."
The seesaw affair continued in the second as the Malemutes closed to within three at 16-13 with 5:12 left, but Grubb added a steal and a highly contested layup and later fed Blaine Carver (10 points) on a two-on-one in making it 21-15.
Andrus took a low feed from senior Zayan Aberkane and dropped it through the net and Carver then sank a long jumper in capping a 9-4 spurt that put Soldotna (21-4) in front by 10.
"His decision-making tonight was really good," Johnson said of his point guard Grubb. "Shooting, passing, whatever it was tonight, whatever we asked him to do, he did and he did very well."
Lathrop continued to answer, though, using a quick 8-2 spurt of its own, three points coming from Nathan Wilson, in slicing the gap to five before Grubb sent Soldotna into the intermission with a 30-23 lead after driving around a double screen and banking the ball off the glass with eight ticks remaining.
"Matt Grubb played absolutely great tonight," Johnson reiterated. "On the biggest stage."
The Stars, who haven't been to state since 2001, also led Wasilla by seven at halftime of the Northern Lights Conference tournament championship in Kodiak on March 7 before the Warriors stormed back in the second half and captured the crown.
"A team that is able to make it to state is not going to quit," Johnson said. "They've got one last punch and they're going to throw it and they're going to come hard."
The Malemutes threw a jab when Tyler Hamilton opened the third with two of his team-high 14 points that made it 30-25.
There would be no comeback this time, though.
Needing to retain the momentum, Soldotna strung together perhaps its finest three-minute stretch of the season.
Grubb canned a wide-open 3, Andrus sank a long jumper and Grubb then drove to the foul line and delivered a clutch jumper that hit the back of the rim and fell through in stretching the lead to 38-25.
But they weren't done yet.
Grubb drove to the lane and dished to Andrus for two more and Andrus, a 6-foot-4 post who teamed with fellow 6-footer Dan Geller for 15 rebounds, fought hard inside for a pair of offensive boards and put-backs that capped a 14-3 explosion and ballooned the lead to 16.
"I thought they came out and tried to get that punch," Johnson said, "but we delivered it first and that was nice."
The Stars still had a few more hooks in them, too.
A pair of free throws from Denzel Crump with 2:22 remaining in the third were the final points Lathrop could muster in the quarter, while Soldotna got two points each from Carver and Aberkane, who also battled for an offensive rebound before delivering a baseline jumper, and another trey from Grubb that propelled SoHi to a commanding and equally surprising 51-30 cushion entering the final quarter.
"It didn't surprise me. It pleased me," Johnson laughed. "We talked to them at halftime about finishing the team.
"And for our guys to just continue to play and continue to do what we do and keep applying the pressure, that was a great step for them to take tonight."
Lathrop's fierce press wreaked havoc for the Stars to open the fourth and the Malemutes capitalized, slicing the deficit to 13 with a quarter-opening 10-2 run behind four points apiece from Wilson and Gralin Paul.
But Grubb and Andrus continued what may have been the games of their lives when Grubb penetrated and assisted Andrus for two -- quelling the strong Lathrop stretch -- and Andrus promptly returned the favor with a backdoor dish that Grubb dropped through in drawing the foul and making it 58-42 with just more than three minutes to play.
"Liam would rather make the great pass than a great shot and that's a great attribute for him to have," Johnson said.
"He got me back," added Grubb. "So it was good."
Andrus' response was more succinct.
"We stepped up and we had to play like that," he said.
Four more points from Aberkane, two on a hanging floater, a trailing put-back by Andrus and another driving layup by Grubb on which he drew another foul sealed Soldotna's fate and a date with Wasilla, which shocked top-seeded West 67-64, tonight.
"Getting one win under your belt is a great feeling," Johnson said. "Just hopefully continue to build on it."
Stars 66, Malemutes 45
Soldotna 12 18 21 15 --66
Lathrop 8 15 7 15 --45
SOLDOTNA (66) -- Story 0 0-0 0, Blossom 0 0-0 0, Grubb 9 3-5 24, Carver 5 0-0 10, Aberkane 2 2-2 6, Geller 1 2-4 4, Bauder 1 0-1 3, Jansen 0 0-0 0, Andrus 7 5-6 19, Skjold 0 0-0 0. Totals -- 25 12-18 66.
LATHROP (45) -- Streeter 1 0-0 2, Berner 0 0-0 0, Paul 2 4-6 8, Pettway 0 0-0 0, Wilson 4 1-1 10, Crump 1 3-4 5, Stephens 1 1-2 3, Duchai 0 0-1 0, Hamilton 6 0-0 14, Pitt 1 1-2 3. Totals -- 16 10-16 45.
3-point goals -- Soldotna 4 (Grubb 3, Bauder 1), Lathrop 3 (Hamilton 2, Wilson 1). Team fouls -- Soldotna 13, Lathrop 20. Fouled out -- none.
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