Owning eight of the last 11 Class 2A state titles, the Ninilchik girls have always been one step ahead of everybody else.
Apparently, teams like Yakutat and Point Hope are now catching up.
Galena, however, is still trying.
After a heartbreaking setback to Yakutat in Wednesday’s semifinals, the Wolverines earned third-place on Thursday with a convincing 42-23 victory over Galena at Sullivan Arena.
“You kind of wonder how they’re going to react when you’ve got to come back after a tough loss like that,” said Ninilchik coach Dan Leman. “But I never had any doubts that we were going to come back and play as hard as we could.”
Before the tournament even began, Leman noticed parity taking hold of the state.
With the way 2A finalists Point Hope and top-ranked Yakutat have been playing lately, it turns out he was right.
“I think the balance is where you have the six or eight good teams, where in the past, maybe you had two or three teams that were obviously ahead of the others,” he explained. “Now, the last three or four years, just everybody has caught up. There’s not one team that can just blow through all the other teams.
“I think that’s the way it was this year and it looks to be the way it’s going to be in the future,” Leman added. “There are just too many good teams out there.”
Ninilchik is still one of them.
For the second straight day, the Wolverines (22-5) used an impressive third-quarter surge to pull away from the Hawks on Thursday.
Leading by only eight at halftime, Ninilchik outscored Galena 14-2 in the period in extending the lead to 33-13 entering the final frame.
They utilized a 17-6 run against Yakutat on Wednesday in taking their first lead of the game late in the third quarter.
“I think part of it is just getting a chance to talk about the first half and make some adjustments. The kids do so much of that on their own,” Leman said. “The coaches tell them to do something here or there but for the most part, the kids make the adjustments and we’ve been able to do that quite a bit throughout the season.”
Having played in three straight championship games with two titles under her belt, senior Krista Leman was disappointed in not advancing to the title game.
“Winning state last year and being in all three years of my high school career, it was hard to finish third,” she said. “But I’m still proud.”
After hitting 11-of-18 free throws in their opening round victory over Selawik, the Wolverines were only 5-of-13 against Yakutat before returning to form with a 10-for-16 performance from the line against Galena.
Averaging more than 16 points a game through three state contests, including a game-high 18 on Thursday, Krista Leman agreed it was Ninilchik’s downfall.
“(Thursday) we did good, but it really would have helped for last night’s game,” she said. “Free throws are what win games.”
Trailing by eight at halftime against Yakutat, the Wolverines charged back in the third before being outscored 11-6 in the final eight minutes. They were only 5-for-11 from the charity stripe in the second half.
“Especially when we played so hard on defense to get back in the game and once we got back, we ran our offense to get fouls and when you do that and you don’t hit those foul shots, it’s tough,” coach Leman explained. “We’re right there and a shot here and a shot there and who knows, it could have been the other way.
“We’re not going to go 5-for-13 ... usually, which is what we did (Wednesday),” he added. “We have good shooters and I trust them to step on the line and hit those shots and we’ve done it all season and unfortunately we just missed one too many (Wednesday).”
Even though the Wolverines didn’t capture their seventh state crown in the last eight years, Leman said this was still one of the best team he’s ever coached.
And considering this was his 17th season at Ninilchik, that’s saying a lot.
“We didn’t win the state championship,” he said, “but that doesn’t take anything away from all the things that they’ve done.”
WOLVERINES 42, LADY HAWKS 23
Galena 6 5 2 10 --23
Ninilchik 9 10 14 9 --42
GALENA (23) -- Fennimore 0 1-4 1, Beans 1 0-0 3, Ar. Turner 0 0-0 0, Jones 1 0-0 2, Burgett 0 0-0 0, Al. Turner 2 0-1 5, S. Diementieff 0 0-0 0, Sommer 5 0-0 10, Huntington 1 0-0 2, Hausmann 0 0-0 0, B. Diementieff 0 0-1 0. Totals -- 10 1-6 23.
NINILCHIK (42) -- H. Skjold 2 0-0 4, Vanderford 0 0-0 0, Leman 6 4-5 18, Walkoff 0 0-0 0, Rohr 2 0-1 4, Rice 4 1-4 9, K. Skjold 0 2-2 2, L. Schnabl 0 0-0 0, T. Schnabl 1 0-0 2, Ehlers 0 3-4 3. Totals -- 15 10-16 42.
3-point goals -- Galena 2 (Beans 1, Al. Turner 1), Ninilchik 2 (Leman 2). Team fouls -- Galena 15, Ninilchik 14. Fouled out -- Sommer.
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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