Ninilchik boys, Nikolaevsk girls take titles
March 9th | Sean Pearson
After losing last year's Peninsula Conference basketball title to the ever-threatening Ninilchik Lady Wolverines, the Lady Warriors from Nikolaevsk used a 17-9 fourth-quarter run last Friday at Homer High School to knock off their south peninsula rival 33-30 and earn the 2017 conference crown.
In a relentless defensive battle that produced a halftime score of only 17-12, the Lady Wolverines held the lead throughout the game, until Niko's Vera Fefelov scored the go-ahead-shot with just over 90 seconds left.
"I can't tell you what I was thinking during the game, because I wasn't; I was just playing with all I had," Fefelov said. "My focus was to play the defense of my life. I played as hard as I could and left everything out on the court. When I thought I couldn't play any harder, I kept going."
On defense, Fefelov kept Ninilchik standout Dee Ann White fairly well-contained — which was Nikolaevsk head coach Bea Klaich's plan from the very beginning.
"Vera is an amazing defensive player, and I assigned the job of shutting DeeAnn down to her," Klaich said. "She (White) still scored 13 points, but I think we all know she can score a lot more on any given night."
Klaich said she is proud of how her young team stepped up — including freshman Makiana Yakunin, who nailed two free-throws with 14.4 seconds left in the game.
In an effort to thwart Yakunin's focus, Ninilchik coach Joshua Demlow called a timeout right before she headed to the charity stripe. But with the confidence of her coach and team, as well as what must be a hefty profusion of ice in her veins, Yakunin didn't miss a beat as she sunk both shots.
Fefelov scored 10 points in the game, but said she doesn't see making baskets as the most important thing in basketball.
"I didn't focus on how many points I was making personally, but more on how I could lead my team to work to make those points together," she said. "In the end, that's exactly what happened. We played with heart and hustle, and I couldn't be happier with how we pulled through."
Fefelov explained how, during the second half, the coach pulled her from the game for a break.
"When I looked up at the scoreboard, I saw we were down by only five points," Fefelov said. "The entire time I sat out, I just kept telling myself, 'I'm not going to lose this game.'"
Apparently it worked.
Klaich said her team's 17-point scoring spurt in the fourth quarter was also part of her bigger plan.
"Our defensive philosophy is to wear the other team down so we can own the second half of the game," she explained. "I had confidence in my girls and knew they could pull this off."?
Still, Klaich conceded, the team has a lot of work to do.
"We haven't 'arrived' yet; we are still working on maintaining consistency in both offense and defense," she said. "I expect them to play hard at State and do their best — that's all I can ask of them."
According to Fefelov, playing her hardest at the State Championships is totally a given, as is winning one game at a time.
"This year is my last year," she said. "I have been to state every single year of my high school basketball career; I did not want to stay home this year!"
The tables were turned in the boys championship game between Nikolaevsk and Ninilchik. This time, the Wolverines would prevail by a score of 67-46 over the Warriors, thanks to 26 points, 16 rebounds and 11 blocked shots from Ninilchik senior Austin White. He was named conference player of the year.
Dalton Geppert scored 13 points for Ninilchik, while Matt Bartolowits added 11. Wolverine senior standout Tyler Presley was unusually quiet with only nine points, but Ninilchik grabbed the lead early in the first quarter and never let go.
Ninilchik coach Nick Finley, who was also named conference coach of the year, said the key to winning is keeping the other team guessing.
"We do a lot of different things; we pride ourselves on executing on offense in the half court," Finley explained. "We run a lot of different sets to get different guys in position to be successful." Finley added that having a "very unique" team also helps
"We have our big guy (Austin White), who everyone wants to stop," he said. "With the defense so focused on Austin, our other shooters find a lot of open shots."
Finley said the team has done a great job this year of running a well-controlled transition game. "We focus on getting stops, and turning defensive stops into offensive transition."
The Warriors did not go down without a fight, as senior Nikit Fefelov scored 17 points and was named to the first-team list, while Kalenik Molodih added 11.
"Nikit is a great player and our entire defensive scheme is to always have a guy on Nikit," said Finley. "We're pretty confident that if we take Nikit out of the picture, we will out-play their other four guys."
Finley said he has watched the Nikolaevsk team improve a lot throughout the season.
"I was very happy with how our guys played during that championship game, but Niko played us tough," he said. "We had to work for that championship. My hat is off to Niko's players and their coaching staff."
Ninilchik led 16-8 at the end of the first quarter, and 36-22 at the half. Nikolaevsk cut the gap to 55-42 with five minutes left in the game, but the Wolverines used a 9-0 run to pick up the 21-point win.
"This regional championship means so much to our team, because this has only been accomplished three times on boys side at Ninilchik," Finley explained. "We're really excited to represent the Peninsula Conference at the state tournament this year."
Finley added that getting ready for State at this point in the season is an interesting thing.
"We're just fine tuning everything we do," he said. "Practice consists of a lot 5 on 5 stuff, getting a lot of shots up and working on defensive rotations."
For Finley, this is a "very special" year, as he has four seniors on the team that he has coached since they were in middle school.
"My wife refers to them as 'my boys'" he said. "I want my boys to finish their high school careers how I feel they deserve — on top!"
One thing Finley definitely hopes will improve before the State tournament is his ability to move around. After suffering an ankle injury in last month's city basketball tournament, Finley has been confined to the bench for the teams last few games.
"Coaching from a seat is so tough for me, as I'm one to pace back and forth throughout the games," he said. "I'm hoping to be up and walking by State; let's cross our fingers!"
The Nikolaevsk boys and Ninilchik girls finished second in the tournament with Saturday wins, making them both eligible to participate in the State Tourney. The Warriors stomped Birchwood Christian 60-32, while the Lady Wolverines offed Lumen Christi 38-24.
The Class 1A state tournament begins in two weeks at the Alaska Airlines Center in Anchorage.