As if playing in the state championship game wasn't enough, Soldotna's Daniel Geller had another reason for not wanting to lose in Friday night's semifinal.
"The motivation for me," the senior said, "came from not wanting to get up early in the morning and playing at 10:40 for that third-place game.
"And I'm not joking around. It's no fun getting up and doing that."
Sleep tight, Dan.
No need to wake up early now.
Geller recorded 12 points and 10 rebounds and senior Liam Andrus added 14 points and five boards in helping the fifth-seeded Stars overcome a lackluster performance from the field in advancing to today's Class 4A state championship for the first time in school history with a come-from-behind 49-38 win over eighth-seeded Wasilla at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage.
"It hasn't even sunk in yet. I can't even explain how I feel," said senior point guard Matt Grubb, who followed up his career-high 24-point performance in Thursday's quarterfinal win over Lathrop with nine points, two rebounds and a pair of assists. "Ever since our freshman year we kind of joked about going to state, but it actually came true and it's amazing."
And the ride isn't over yet.
Soldotna, behind a 29-13 second half, will now take on three-time state champion Dimond at 8 p.m. today in the first appearance in a Class 4A final for a Kenai Peninsula boys team since Kenai Central finished second during the 1980-81 season.
"That's how long SoHi's been open, I think," first-year SoHi coach Matthew Johnson quipped.
Seward also finished second twice, in 1950 and 1961, while playing in 4A.
But the Stars, having already made history on Thursday by becoming the first SoHi boys team since 1988 to earn a first-round win at state, now have a chance at finishing something that perhaps only the people in that locker room thought was possible when the season began.
"I knew the talent was there," Johnson said of his thoughts when he took over at the start of the year. "I knew they were great kids. They love to compete, they love to get in the gym, they're gym rats, and so I was excited to get my hands on them and kind of try to guide them. I don't feel like I can take a whole lot of credit. They do a lot of this on their own."
There's certainly no questioning that anymore.
Having defeated the Warriors on the final day of January in Soldotna, the Stars came out of the gate slow on Friday, quickly finding themselves in a 5-0 hole and behind 13-8 entering the second after hitting just 3-of-11 shots in the first.
Wasilla senior Adrese LaVern, a transfer from top-seeded West, which was stunned by the Warriors in the opening round, stretched the lead to 17-8 with four of his 10 points in the opening minute of the second.
Following a pair of free throws from Geller, Wasilla's Cole Schierman drained a 3 from the corner that made it 20-10 with six minutes until halftime.
"I thought that first half, I didn't think we played very good basketball," Johnson said. "I didn't think we played hard enough, I didn't think we wanted it bad enough.
"Wasilla came out and threw that first punch in a big way and our guys got back on their heels for a second, but then they responded real well."
Two massive offensive boards by Andrus set him up for a baby hook in the lane and Geller added a pair of offensive put-backs himself in the final three minutes in trimming the gap to 25-20 entering the break.
"Obviously the offensive rebounds are huge," Geller said of SoHi owning a 13-9 edge, which translated into 10 of their 12 second-quarter points. "Anytime you look at a statistic and see that one team's got a lopsided advantage on the offensive rebounds, it pretty much correlates with how the final score goes."
Johnson said the back-and-forth affair reminded him of the Northern Lights Conference championship in Kodiak two weeks ago, when his team led by 11 and then seven at halftime before allowing Wasilla to storm back and win the game.
Geller also cited that lingering memory as his second tool of motivation.
"I credit my coaches for just firing us up at halftime," he said.
Whatever Johnson and Co. said, it clearly worked.
Behind four points from Andrus, the Stars — who didn't hit a 3 but made up for it by going 19-for-22 from the foul line — commenced the third on a 6-0 run in taking their first lead of the game with 5:05 left. After John Knowles scored inside in grabbing it right back for the Warriors, Grubb, who was 2-of-13 from the field, hit an off-balance jumper and senior Zayan Aberkane added a one-handed floater for a three-point lead. But Wasilla continued to answer, as Cody Pfeifer, Tim Orr and LaVern all found the bottom of the net in the closing 2:12 in staking the Warriors to a 33-30 lead after three.
"Our kids just stayed focused and kind of stayed the course," Johnson said. "They didn't panic, they just stepped it up and that was great to see."
Trailing by three a minute into the fourth, Andrus worked his way inside on a beautiful move for two and Grubb added a bucket that rolled around the rim for nearly three seconds before dropping through for a 36-35 lead.
"With (Wasilla's) size, I mean, it's just hard," Grubb said of rebounding, "but we've got two of the biggest, two of the most hard-working, just big guys in the state I would say. Dan and Liam, you don't come by them very often."
Two minutes of scoreless basketball later, SoHi took its biggest lead of the game at 40-35 on the heels of a bucket from Andrus set up by a crisp driving dish from Blaine Carver, who then added a jumper off the glass with 1:35 that all but sealed the Stars' fate.
A 9-for-12 performance from the charity stripe in the final 1:08 just made it official.
"Me and Zayan Aberkane made a prophecy our freshman year that we weighed the matchups and we crunched the numbers and we kind of figured out that we could be here by our senior year," Geller said. "It's beyond expectation for us."
When it was over, Soldotna's attention immediately shifted toward the second-seeded Lynx, who topped Bartlett on Friday but were upset in overtime by Kenai Central in last year's first round.
"I think tonight we played 16 minutes of good basketball with spurts in there that first half. But it's going to take 32 with Dimond," Johnson said. "Dimond's a great ballclub. They're not going to make it easy on us, I know that. But I'm excited for a shot at 'em."
Stars 49, Warriors 38
Wasilla 13 12 8 5 -38
Soldotna 8 12 10 19 -49
WASILLA (38) - Schierman 1 0-0 3, Kroon 3 0-2 7, Kuiper 3 0-0 7, LaVern 5 0-2 10, Orr 2 0-0 5, Pfeifer 2 0-0 4, Mock 0 0-0 0, Knowles 1 0-0 2, Green 0 0-0 0. Totals - 17 0-4 38.
SOLDOTNA (49) - Blossom 0 0-0 0, Grubb 2 5-6 9, Carver 2 2-2 6, Aberkane 1 2-4 4, Geller 3 6-6 12, Bauder 2 0-0 4, Jansen 0 0-0 0, Andrus 5 4-4 14. Totals - 15 19-22 49.
3-point goals - Wasilla 4 (Schierman, Kroon, Kuiper, Orr). Team fouls - Wasilla 19, Soldotna 9. Fouled out - Kroon, Orr.
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