Since losing to Nikiski by nine in a holiday tournament in December, Mt. Edgecumbe hasn't fallen to a Class 3A opponent since.
And when the clock struck zero on Friday, the Braves still haven't.
Aided by an uncharacteristically poor shooting performance in the first half by Nikiski, Mt. Edgecumbe controlled the boards and limited the Bulldogs' second-chance opportunities in earning a gutty 37-31 win in the Class 3A girls state basketball tournament at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
Nikiski's loss doesn't end their season, as the Bulldogs will take on Sitka at 9 a.m. today in the third-place game.
It does, however, put an end to their quest for the rich program's ninth state championship and first since 2006.
"We attacked the basket and went up strong, things rolled in and out. It's just one of those games," said Nikiski coach Ward Romans, whose team finished just 9-of-52 (17.3 percent) from the field. "You coach as long as I have and it's just one of those things. I'm so proud of these girls.
"It doesn't change who we are at all," he added. "It hurts because of what we've invested in the season, this hurts. But these guys will respond."
The Braves responded in a big way, owning a 10-point lead at halftime, in part because Nikiski shot just 2-for-26 (7.7 percent) in the first half. Mt. Edgecumbe then held on during a frantic, late comeback by the Bulldogs in advancing to today's championship game against Anchorage Christian Schools for the first time in school history.
"That was our goal was to advance ... further than we did last year. We got to the semis last year, came up short," said Braves coach Carl Blackhurst. "It's just a huge victory for us. Now we've got to get ready to face ACS, another very, very tough team."
Nikiski, which finished fourth in 2007 and didn't advance to state last season, trailed 17-7 at the half and seemed poised to make a run to open the third when senior Eliza Chadwick drained a 3 and added another long jumper in trimming the deficit to 17-12 with 5:35 left in the frame.
Abby Chadwick made it 19-14 with a baseline jumper and senior Lacey Carlson then trimmed the gap to three, courtesy of a courageous play by senior Rachel Romans, who dove head-first into a media table to save the ball with a one-handed swat.
The Bulldogs (20-6) then crept within 21-20 when they broke the press and found Bradi Anderson for a quick bucket with just more than two minutes left in the third.
Despite turning the ball over on three straight possessions, Mt. Edgecumbe never allowed Nikiski to knot the game and entered the fourth with a five-point lead after Tak Weber and Nicole Pingayak, who had eight points and 10 rebounds, each found the bottom of the net in the final 1:40.
"I've always had a strong respect for Nikiski, a real storied program and so huge amount of respect for Ward. So you always know when you play them, you've got to show up," Blackhurst said. "They don't make a lot of mistakes, they don't turn the ball over a lot. We knew that was our way to get the ball back was to lock down defensively and to get the rebounds off the misses."
And just as they did in the first half, the Braves executed that plan to perfection again in the fourth.
Nikiski's ferocious press in the opening minutes of the final quarter forced a trio of turnovers and helped turn a six-point deficit into a three-point hole after Kassi Johnson scored her only two of the game on a put-back. But Emily Cronk answered for the Braves, scoring down low before Eliza Chadwick, who netted a game-high 16 points, sank a pair of free throws in again cutting it to three.
The ensuing three minutes took close to a half-hour, though, as the Bulldogs consistently applied a swarming press in the backcourt that caused a pair of turnovers, but the Bulldogs came up empty each time, missing three shots and a free throw.
"Defensively was what we wanted," Romans said. "It's just a night where shots didn't fall and that's painful as a coach for our kids because they were fearless about looking for shots."
After Mt. Edgecumbe beat the press up the floor and Tricia Ivanoff delivered two of her eight points in stretching the lead to six with under two minutes to play, Eliza Chadwick responded with a quick trey. Another turnover, this time a steal by Johnson, led to two more free throws from Chadwick and a 32-31 game.
"They really made it tough for us to get the ball across the court," Blackhurst said. "Their press was awesome. They've got some great defenders."
But that was as close as Nikiski would get as Charlea Kewan again beat the press down the floor for two and Nikiski missed its final four shots in falling short of its goal.
"Defensively we gave up a couple things late, layups late because we had to gamble, but we held them in the low 30s," Romans said. "That's what we've done all year and done a good job of and tonight just wasn't our night shooting.
"It seemed like to me we got no offensive rebounds tonight," he added of Mt. Edgecumbe's 44-29 advantage on the glass. "We were trying and I don't know if it was because we were having to give so much effort to come back. I don't have an answer. I don't know why."
One day after topping Galena with an impressive 47 percent performance from the field, the Bulldogs' prolonged slump in the first half on Friday eventually did them in.
"We spent the rest of the game trying to dig out of it and showed great heart and character. I just felt like we couldn't get a break ~ a big shot or a break to go our way," Romans said. "I can't explain it.
"We have another opportunity to play together as a family one last game," he added. "But there's no way to deal with the hurt right now."
Braves 37, Bulldogs 31
Nikiski 3 4 13 11 -31
Mt. Edgecumbe 7 10 8 12 -37
NIKISKI (31) - Romans 0 2-2 2, A. Chadwick 1 0-0 2, Johnson 1 0-0 2, Carlson 2 2-6 6, E. Chadwick 4 5-7 16, Anderson 1 0-0 3, Peek 0 0-0 0. Totals - 9 9-15 31.
MT. EDGECUMBE (37) - Beaver 2 1-2 5, Redfox 1 5-10 7, T. Ivanoff 3 1-2 7, W. Weber 0 0-0 0, Cronk 2 0-0 4, T. Weber 1 0-0 2, Kewan 2 0-0 4, Pingayak 3 2-2 8. Totals - 14 9-16 37.
3-point goals - Nikiski 4 (E. Chadwick 3, Anderson 1). Team fouls - Nikiski 18, Mt. Edgecumbe 15. Fouled out - Romans.
Peninsula Clarion ©2013. All Rights Reserved.