Nikiski's Tasha Thompson tries to move the ball under pressure from Soldotna's April Heffner in the second quarter Thursday at the Peninsula Challenge at Skyview High School.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
For the Soldotna girls basketball team, it was as easy as 1-1-3.
The Stars opened up Thursday's Peninsula Challenge matchup at Skyview High School by falling into a 5-0 hole. Soldotna then switched to a 1-1-3 zone and ran off 11 straight points en route to a 45-28 victory.
Soldotna, playing its first game of the year, lost three starters from last season's run to the Class 4A state tournament, but returns six players with decent varsity experience. Nikiski, playing its third game of the year, lost four starters from a run to the Class 3A state tournament and does not have as much returning varsity experience as the Stars.
That didn't stop Nikiski from getting the upper hand early. On Nikiski's first possession, the Bulldogs got four offensive rebounds before Samantha Rorrison scored. Eliza Chadwick made 1 of 2 free throws on the next possession, and on Nikiski's third possession the Bulldogs picked up two offensive rebounds before Tasha Thompson scored for a 5-0 lead.
Tuter called timeout with 5:47 left in the first quarter and switched from man-to-man defense to the 1-1-3 zone. Tuter said one benefit of the switch is it got his team more active on defense.
"It was the first game of the year," Tuter said. "We were not used to how hard we had to play. We changed defenses and were a lot more active going after the ball."
The second benefit of the change was Nikiski was not ready for it. The Bulldogs were a well-oiled machine attacking the man-to-man. Against the zone, the Bulldogs turned the ball over on six of their 10 possessions before the end of the first quarter.
"That's my fault. We didn't prepare for it," Nikiski coach Ward Romans said of the zone. "Coach Tuter has been playing more and more man-to-man in recent years, but he made the adjustment and went to zone. It was a great adjustment."
The Bulldogs had a string of five straight turnovers in the first period, and Soldotna was able to score on three of the ensuing possessions to grab an 11-8 lead.
"We had a string of turnovers that really hurt us," Romans said. "They were young turnovers, and that makes sense because we're a young team.
"I thought we played really well tonight. We didn't back down. Give all the credit to Soldotna."
Soldotna stayed in the zone for most of the rest of the game and Nikiski never figured it out. The Bulldogs had 24 turnovers, to nine for Soldotna, and Nikiski was 9-of-46 (20 percent) from the floor, while Soldotna was 17-of-51 (33 percent). By stifling the Bulldogs, the Stars increased their lead to 22-12 at halftime and 35-23 after three quarters.
Romans said he was thrilled that Nikiski's defense was able to keep the Bulldogs within striking distance.
"I'm really proud of the girls and the way they played team defense," he said. "Soldotna has a lot of pieces in place. They're one of the top teams in the state. This will be really good for us as we move on to face 3A teams."
One of the most important parts of the defense was senior Tasha Thompson. Thompson guarded Paige Blackburn, who Romans said is one of the top three players in the state, and held her to six points. Meanwhile, Thompson had 11 rebounds to spearhead Nikiki's 41-32 edge on the glass. Thompson also paced Nikiski with seven points.
Of course, Thompson didn't do it all herself. The Bulldogs were quick to double down on Blackburn.
"We were trying to force it into her too much," Tuter said. "We should have been reversing the ball."
Romans said Soldotna is hard to stop because the Stars have so many weapons. Shelly Barker paced Soldotna with 11 points on 4-of-7 shooting while Jessi Stenga added nine points on 4-of-7 shooting. Blackburn paced the Stars with nine rebounds.
"Shelly is a pretty complete player," Tuter said. "She can score from the inside and she can score outside."
The defending Class 3A state champions got off to a quick start in defeating the Kardinals.
Barrow outscored Kenai 25-11 in the first quarter and 40-19 in the first half. Barrow's Princess Eduarte led all scorers with 16 points, while Julieanna Williams pitched in 16 points for the Whalers.
For Kenai, Samantha Hull had 14 points, including four 3-pointers. Kyla Steward added 10 points.
Skyview girls 37, Cook Inlet Academy 31
The Panthers received 13 points from Britany Meyer in advancing to the semifinals. Brooke Forsi led all CIA scorers with 17 points.
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