Having already defeated Chugiak once this season, the Soldotna girls knew how suffocating the Mustangs’ full-court press could be.
Once again, though, they were prepared for it.
“We just kind of focused on that in practice lately and have been working on our passes,” said senior Mikala Smith after scoring a team-high 15 points in leading the fifth-seeded Stars to a hard-fought 54-50 victory in the opening round of the 4A state tournament Thursday at Service High School. “The main thing was not to panic when they come trap you. Just breathe and get it to the wide-open person.”
Easier said than done.
Chugiak’s pressure stymied Soldotna in the first half, forcing the Stars into nine turnovers before Smith canned a 3-pointer at the buzzer in sending both teams to the locker rooms tied at 22.
“They’re small and they’re quick and they’re good ballplayers,” said SoHi coach Mark Tuter. “And we knew that they were going to press us and that they had to keep the tempo that they wanted.”
While fourth-seeded Chugiak’s pressure remained formidable in the second half, the Stars (22-5) found their touch after shooting only 21.4 percent (6-for-28) in the opening half.
After Chugiak’s Sarah Watzke collected two of her game-high 22 points, Smith answered with another trey and Christa Kennedy added a tough lay-up for a 27-24 advantage with 5:53 left in the third.
But Watzke delivered again just as she did all game.
Taking advantage of Soldotna’s 11th turnover of the contest, she blew by Smith for the lay-in and foul. She then hit a 3-pointer 50 seconds later for a three-point Mustangs’ lead.
“They’re very quick, all of them. She did very good,” Smith said. “We definitely need to step up to that.”
SoHi then found its own sharpshooter. After missing both of her shots in the first half, freshman Karen Senette sank back-to-back 3s as part of her 12-point second half and added a three-point play with 40 seconds remaining in the period, putting the Stars in front by four entering the fourth.
“Karen did great,” Smith said. “She was key to winning that game because she hit those 3s that we really needed. It was fantastic.”
She wasn’t the only one, though. The Stars were 8-for-18 from beyond the arc compared to Chugiak’s 1-for-14 performance.
“That kind of surprises me, too,” Tuter said. “I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was eight to one the other way.”
The way SoHi’s been shooting lately, Smith was excited as well.
“It’s great, because the last couple of games we’ve kind of been bricking them,” she said with a laugh. “So it was really nice to have them all go in (Thursday). It really helped us.”
The biggest was still yet to come. A quick 4-0 spurt by the Mustangs to open the fourth knotted the game at 38 before the Stars answered with two quick baskets of their own.
Clinging to a three-point lead with 2:01 remaining, Shelly Barker took an inbounds pass from the baseline and nailed a three for a six-point cushion.
“In the course of the season, Shelly’s kind of a streaky shooter. She’s got confidence. She shoots real well,” Tuter said. “They were playing a tight inside zone and they weren’t giving us that inside shot no matter what.”
But Chugiak remained calm as they scored six points off three turnovers in the final minute, cutting the deficit to three with nine seconds to play.
Whistled for a line violation which wiped her first made free throw off the board, Smith then made it 7-for-8 from the foul line when she iced the game with six ticks left.
“It’s very frustrating, especially for the point guard and the guards who have to deal with the ball a lot,” she said of facing the press. “It gets on your nerves a lot. You’ve just got to not let it bother you because if you let it bother you you’ll do worse than if you don’t.”
Chugiak’s swarming defense helped prepare the Stars for Wasilla, who they’ll play at 5:10 p.m. today at Sullivan Arena.
“If you’re going to win state, you’ve got to beat them. They’re the best team in state. I believe that,” Tuter said of the Warriors, who beat SoHi twice this season. “So if you want to be the state champs, you need to beat the No. 1 team and they’re the No. 1 team as far as I’m concerned and they will be until we beat them or somebody else beats them.”
Stars 54, Mustangs 50
Soldotna 8 14 16 16 --54
Chugiak 8 14 12 16 ---50
SOLDOTNA (54) -- Smith 3 7-7 15, Senette 4 1-1 12, Heffner 1 0-2 1, Jes. Stenga 0 0-2 0, Kennedy 4 1-2 10, Jen. Stenga 1 0-0 2, Barker 2 1-2 7, Duffy 1 1-1 3, Blackburn 0 3-4 3. Totals: 16 14-20 54.
CHUGIAK (50) -- Watzke 8 5-5 22, Finch 1 0-0 2, Sayer 2 0-0 4, Clifford 2 0-0 4, Jennings 3 0-0 6, Weiss 1 0-0 2, Schwenne 2 0-0 4, Murphy 3 0-0 6. Totals: 22 5-5 50.
3-pointers -- Soldotna 8 (Senette 3, Smith 2, Barker 2, Kennedy 1), Chugiak 1 (Watzke). Fouls -- Soldotna 10, Chugiak 20. Fouled out -- Murphy.
Class 4A girls state basketball tournament
Thursday’s games at Service High School
Game 1 -- Juneau 50, West Valley 41
Game 2 -- East 39, Palmer 20
Game 3 -- Soldotna 54, Chugiak 50
Game 4 -- Wasilla 49, South 32
Friday’s games at Sullivan Arena
Game 5 -- Juneau vs. East, 3:30 p.m.
Game 6 -- Soldotna vs. Wasilla, 5:10 p.m.
Game 7 -- West Valley vs. Palmer, 8 a.m.
Game 8 -- Chugiak vs. South, 9:40 a.m.
Fourth place -- Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner, 12:20 p.m. at UAA
Third place -- Game 5 loser vs. Game 6 loser, 9 a.m. at Sullivan Arena
Championship -- Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner, 6 p.m. at Sullivan Arena
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
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