Minutes after capturing a second consecutive Class 2A state title on Wednesday night at Sullivan Arena, Yakutat head coach Joe Klushkan approached Ninilchik head man Dan Leman, patting him on the back in the hallway just outside the locker rooms.
"Thanks for letting me get one," Klushkan said with a smile.
He should be thanking his girls.
Pressuring the Wolverines into 16 turnovers and holding them to just 23.6 percent shooting and a mere seven points in the second half, the Eagles overcame their own second-half woes in hanging on for an ugly 32-20 victory.
"No, it wasn't easy," Leman said. "We put up a good fight and played about as good as we could. We played hard enough. We just didn't play good enough."
It was the second lowest-scoring 2A girls title game since 1984, the first being a matchup between these same teams in 2002 when Ninilchik claimed the third of five consecutive titles with a 35-15 triumph.
And while it's disappointing that they didn't claim their ninth crown in the last 13 years, the 12-point loss demonstrates the vast strides made by this edition of the Wolverines.
"It's kind of ironic, the first game of the year we play Yakutat and we lose by 45 and we end up in the state championship game against Yakutat and we take a good run at them and we stay with them the whole game," Leman explained. "I think that's just a real, good reflection on how far the kids have come.
"Obviously, defensively we're a better team, but just in the sense of being a team, we're much better than we were then," he added. "Forty-five points or 10 points, 12 points, it's still a loss and it still hurts."
It was already stinging by the second half.
It seemed as though Ninilchik (15-9) was primed to take its first lead since 2-0 when Lindsey Rohr sliced the deficit to 18-16 by beating her defender off the dribble and knifing through the lane for two.
But neither team was able to steal the momentum.
Roughly three-and-a-half minutes of scoreless ball later, Yakutat's Sharnel Vale finally jump-started a 7-2 run to close the third up seven when she received a lob down low and put it up for two of her game-high 10 points.
"Unfortunately for us you don't get for points for heart and hustle, because we played with so much heart and the girls hustled the whole game. We just couldn't turn those into points," Leman said. "We had chances, we had shots that we wanted to take, we just couldn't get them to drop. I think that was the difference."
The Wolverines then went a frustrating 1-for-9 from the floor in the fourth, including a span of 5:10 over the third and fourth quarters without a point, while Yakutat (24-1) managed to hit three of its eight fourth-quarter shots in clinging to victory.
"They had a chance there to put us away," Leman said. "I think it just shows what kind of kids that we've got that we hung in there and things weren't going the way that we wanted them to on the offensive end, but being able to play good defense kept us in the game."
Having been to the state title game three times now in the past seven years, emerging victorious in the last two, the Eagles will lose just three seniors, including last season's 2A player of the year Heidi Esbenshade, who was sidelined since January with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. Without her, Yakutat went 19-0, including three straight at the state tourney.
It appears they have all the makings of a Ninilchik-like run in them, too.
"They play well together and they seem to have that chemistry, not only on the court, but off the court, too. I think that's something that we all have in common," Leman said. "I don't see them getting much worse. They're losing a couple of good players but most of their roster is underclassmen. I see them definitely being back here and making a push for one more."
Knowing that makes Thursday's loss a little easier to swallow.
"It was awesome to get here. We knew they were tough. So, I'm not too disappointed about losing to them," said four-year varsity member Heidi Skjold. "At the beginning of the season I didn't even think we'd make it this far. Runner-up is pretty good for me right now."
At the beginning, though, it seemed like Yakutat could run away with it.
After Grace Ehlers netted the first two points of the game just 17 seconds in, Yakutat dominated the opening quarter.
Four different Eagles found the bottom of the net during an 8-2 run over the ensuing 3:31 while Ninilchik went just 1-for-5 from the field an Ashley Bartolowits layup on a two-on-one feed from Skjold being the lone points.
But a 3-pointer from the corner by Skjold sliced the deficit to one before Yakutat's pressure defense forced the Wolverines into consecutive turnovers, which led to buckets by Justyne Wheeler and Katrina Fraker and a 12-7 Yakutat lead after eight minutes.
"They got some easy baskets off that press," Leman said. "Up to a point you've got to be able to break that press and score baskets off it. I think we were able to do that enough times but it was the points that they scored off their turnovers that really hurt us."
Placing third last year after losing to Yakutat in the semifinals, Ninilchik still couldn't find a rhythm in the early moments of the second, missing its first five shots of the frame while being pressured into a pair of turnovers. Luckily for the Wolverines, though, the Eagles lost their stroke, too, missing four straight, but still stretched the lead to nine when Sharnel Vale netted two of her four first-half points at the 3:51 mark of the second.
"They had very good defense and it took a lot for us to get in there," Skjold said.
Ninilchik, which knocked off Northway and Point Hope en route to a finals' appearance, then wreaked havoc with its defense, pulling down a rebound off a Rose Fraker miss which eventually found its way to Skjold, who cruised in for the first of six straight points. Rohr scored on a driving floater and Skjold added two more when she fought through a swarming double-team for a layup that sent the teams into the locker room separated by just three points.
"It just seems like we were always running into two players when we had the ball where we wanted to have it," said Leman, who loses four seniors and two starters next year. "We don't have a great scoring threat from the outside. We try to pound it inside and maybe draw some fouls and we weren't getting them (Thursday). But that's the way it is at tournament time."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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