The record books will say otherwise.
But Soldotna coach Mark Tuter believes his girls are still the third best Class 4A team in Alaska.
The Stars were just a few shots away from making it official.
Trailing by as many as eight in the first half, third-seeded East used a 10-0 run to close the third quarter and SoHi connected on only 2-of-12 shots in the fourth in placing fifth with a 42-34 setback in the third-place game at Sullivan Arena on Saturday morning.
In Friday’s semifinals, eventual state champion and top-seeded Wasilla opened the third quarter on an 11-0 spurt and closed the period with a 12-0 stretch in advancing to the finals with a 56-35 win over the fifth-seeded Stars.
The Warriors then captured the crown with a hard-fought 51-48 victory over Juneau on Saturday.
“I thought we were the third best team in the state and I still think we are,” said Tuter, whose team placed third in 2003. “I think if we played East 10 times, we’d beat them the majority of the times. That’s my thoughts. Maybe we wouldn’t. But that’s my thoughts.
“I think we’re the third best team in the state and on a given night I really believe we could knock off Wasilla or Juneau,” he added. “But the two best teams in the state are playing for the state championship the way you want it.”
The Stars (22-7) held their own through the first halves of their final two contests, but the third quarter was ultimately their demise on both occasions.
Wasilla’s Jenna Johnson scorched Soldotna for 10 of her game-high 21 points and East’s Jazzie Gaddy netted nine of her game-high 15 points in the third as the Thunderbirds outscored the Stars by eight.
“(Friday) we came out in a zone a little bit there in the third quarter. (Saturday) we came out in man,” Tuter explained. “I thought we’d be able to pick it up. We just didn’t.”
After Gaddy recorded 25 points in an opening round victory over Palmer, Tuter was pleased with holding her to 6-of-13 shooting.
A lights-out 10-for-11 performance from Johnson, however, was unacceptable to Tuter.
“They’re both really good ballplayers. A lot of times big ballplayers step up at big times,” he said. “Jazzie, she did about what I thought that she would do. I was OK with what she did. Jenna, the night before, that wasn’t OK.
“I’m OK with (East’s) best player scoring 15 points and not dominating,” Tuter added. “Johnson, on the other hand, is somebody we can match up with but you try to take (Anne) Wesser away and she just had a hot hand.”
The story for East, though, was clearly Gaddy.
After trimming an eight-point deficit to two when the junior found Sheena Pio underneath for an easy lay-in with 1:35 left in the first half, Gaddy knotted the game at 21 when she hit a shot and drew the foul.
Jenni Stenga then put the Stars in front by a bucket at halftime when she scored two of her eight points with only 35 seconds left.
SoHi even extended the lead to 26-21 about a minute into the third when Shelly Barker nailed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc.
But Gaddy then took over.
She converted an old-fashioned three-point play and then ran off four more points in a row before Clare Kreilkamp hit a pair of foul shots, giving the Thunderbirds’ their first lead of the game with 3:21 to play in the third.
Down by six early in the fourth, Soldotna’s Christa Kennedy scored four straight and after a basket by Pio, Stenga’s shot with 4:42 to play sailed high off the backboard and through the net, cutting the deficit to 36-34.
That was all the scoring the Stars had left in them, though, as they finished off a 25 percent (12-for-48) performance by missing their final seven shots.
“We just couldn’t hit a shot. We had three good shots when it was 34-36,” Tuter said. “If we hit a shot or two it’d have put a little more pressure on them. Then we missed those shots, then we started feeling the pressure.”
It was a similar story against Wasilla, who forced 19 first-half turnovers yet led by only four at halftime.
But it didn’t take long for the Warriors to morph into the team that’s won 89 consecutive region games and their first state championship since 1982.
They extended the lead to 31-16 when they opened the third on an 11-0 spurt, keyed by five points from senior Hillarie Putnam and four from senior Anne Wesser.
“We knew we had to play 32 good minutes and I knew that the start of the second half would be critical. And they came out and scored, eight, nine, 10, 11 points right off the get-go and I knew we were in trouble right from the beginning,” he said. “When that happened, I knew that we had a real uphill battle.”
Things didn’t get any easier for SoHi, as Johnson recorded three of her seven steals in the final 2:08 and scored eight straight for a 21-point cushion entering the final frame.
The sophomore then canned a baseline jumper 45 seconds into the fourth and hit a 3 about four minutes later in capping an incredible all-around game for herself, as well as the Warriors, which shot 40 percent for the game.
“She was just on. She’s a great ballplayer. I love watching her play and she’s going to be a wonderful ballplayer for the next two years. She’s going to be a problem for everybody,” Tuter said. “That’s what they do. You try to stop Wesser, you double-team her and you leave Jenna open. Well, you leave Jenna open and you try to stop her and (Ayla Brown) gets open. Brown is a good outside shooter.”
Having lost twice to the Warriors earlier in the year, Tuter knew what was required to knock them off.
“They play superhard the whole time. They play for 32 minutes as hard as any team can possibly play,” he explained. “And it isn’t like they have two or three players who play hard for 32 minutes. They have six or seven players that play hard for the whole time and that’s the difference between us and the Colony’s and Palmer’s and the teams that are close to them. But that’s the difference right now and it has been for a few years.”
Despite placing fifth in their first trip to state in four years, Tuter was happy with the overall performance. He also believes they can return to Anchorage next season.
“They did a wonderful job. I couldn’t be more pleased,” he said. “I never had a better group of kids in my whole life. We never had one thing not to be proud of the whole season.
“We’re going to be strong for years to come.”
Matthew Carroll can be reached at email@example.com.
Warriors 56, Stars 35
Wasilla 12 8 23 13 56
Soldotna 5 11 6 13 35
WASILLA (56) Wesser 3 3-4 9, Fulton 0 2-2 2, Putnam 3 1-1 7, Brown 1 0-0 3, Johnson 10 0-0 21, Cronk 1 0-2 2, Husmann 1 0-0 2, Podbielski 1 0-0 2, Carter 4 0-0 8. Totals: 24 6-9 56.
SOLDOTNA (35) Smith 1 0-1 2, Senette 0 6-6 6, Heffner 0 0-0 0, Jes. Stenga 3 1-1 7, Kennedy 2 0-1 4, Donaldson 1 0-1 2, Jen. Stenga 0 2-2 2, Dystra 1 0-2 2, Hardy 1 0-0 2, Barker 0 0-0 0, Duffy 0 4-6 4, Blackburn 2 0-0 4. Totals: 11 13-20 35.
3-pointers Wasilla 2 (Brown, Johnson). Fouls Wasilla 21, Soldotna 12. Fouled out none.
Thunderbirds 42, Stars 34
Soldotna 13 10 5 6 34
East 5 16 13 8 42
SOLDOTNA (34) Smith 1 2-2 5, Senette 0 0-2 0, Heffner 1 0-0 2, Jes. Stenga 0 2-2 2, Kennedy 3 2-2 8, Donaldson 1 0-0 2, Jen. Stenga 3 2-2 8, Barker 2 0-0 5, Duffy 1 0-1 2, Blackburn 0 0-0 0. Totals: 12 8-9 34.
EAST (42) Kreilkamp 1 3-5 5, Dunn 1 1-2 4, Jackson 1 2-2 4, McDaniel 1 0-0 2, Martin 2 3-5 7, Pio 2 1-2 5 Hunter 0 0-0 0, Gaddy 6 3-4 15. Totals: 14 13-20 42.
3-pointers Soldotna 2 (Smith, Barker), East 1 (Dunn). Fouls Soldotna 19, East 12. Fouled out none.
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