State Tourney Championship Notebook
The Lady Panthers pose with their State Championship Trophy: Bottom row, from left - Kaitlyn Surdyk, Rori Leaverton, Jesse Ellis, Kaylie O’Daniel, Polly Brown, and Amanda Jensen; top row - Jayce Ellis, Emily Herbig, Anna Korsmo, Kayla Henricksen, Elise Doland, and Avi Vogel. Jeff Brady
Lady Panthers capture first state basketball title
By JEFF BRADY
State Tourney Intro
Break out the flashing glasses
So you get to the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, and just inside the door is all this stuff. ASAA March Madness swag.
Coming from a small town – and that’s all of us at the 1A-2A tournament – this is pretty cool stuff. They’ve greatly improved on the shirt from last year, and the sweatshirts also have a nice flair to them. The little kids love the mini-basketballs – when not bouncing them, they will have their favorite players sign them.
But what is Skagway’s Kaylie O’Daniel, the point guard and leading scorer on the state’s best team, drawn to?
The flashing glasses. This is a team that came to dance.
Rori Leaverton dashes downcourt ahead of a Wolverine for a score., while Les Fairbanks sports his granddaughter Kaitlyn Surdyk’s jersey for the championship game. Cody Jennings
Skagway 47, Chevak 34
O’Daniel knew where that high school 3-point line was on the big Sullivan Arena court. She had been here before.
So on the first Panther possession she drove to the right wing, made a nifty fake that backed off her defender, stepped just inside the college 3-point line, and just outside the high school line, and fired a rainbow right through the net.
It was the first of three she connected in the first quarter as Skagway took an early 14-3 lead in its quarterfinal game against Kuskokwim Conference champ Chevak. And from that point on, the Panther defense took over, forcing steals, blocking shots, and grabbing rebounds at both ends of the floor. After O’Daniel picked up a couple fouls, Emily Herbig came off the bench and made some key assists.
Chevak’s Laverna Paniyak connected at the start of the second quarter to cut the Skagway lead to 14-6, but those were the only points the Comets would score for the rest of the half. The Panther offense warmed up mid-quarter, as Jesse Ellis got a pair of shots to fall inside, and O’Daniel and Rori Leaverton converted steals into quick buckets on the break.
In the final two minutes of the half, Kaitlyn Surdyk was a beast on the boards. Three times, she wrestled offensive rebounds away from two Comet defenders, and converted buckets or got to the line. She scored the final five points of the half, as the Lady Panthers held a commanding 29-6 advantage.
“We started with a bang,” said coach Lara Labesky. “To keep a state tournament team to just six points in the first half is a pretty good accomplishment.”
She said O’Daniel started off on fire, Surdyk showed her usual “hustle factor,” and Ellis shut down Comets star Chelsea Lake.
Skagway cooled off some to start the second half, but their quick hands on defense kept frustrating the Comets and forcing turnovers. Ellis also had some monster blocks inside. Leaverton hit a couple of big buckets, one off a rebound and the other a big-time trey, as Skagway led 36-14 at the end of the period. By then, coaches Labesky and Mark Jennings were shuttling in bench players.
“Everyone got involved in the game and got some quality minutes,” Labesky said. “The starters got the big lead and gave their teammates a chance to play.”
Making the most of their state tourney minutes were Amanda Jensen, Elise Doland, Polly Brown, Avi Vogel, Jayce Ellis, and Kayla Henricksen. The Skagway crowd – about 75 strong – roared when Henricksen banked in a 3-pointer from the left wing.
Chevak never gave up and whittled down the big Skagway lead, as Comets player of the game Misty Olson scored 9 of her 11 points in the final minutes.
Skagway was led by O’Daniel with 15 and Leaverton with 11. Ellis was Skagway’s player of the game with an impressive stat line of 10 points, 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 2 blocked shots.
After the game, the team sat in the stands to watch the Cook Inlet-Northway game. The coaches scribbled notes. The kids glanced up from their cell phones. It looked like point guard O’Daniel was paying the most attention, but it was hard to tell behind those flashing sun glasses.
One game behind them, this team was ready for some serious flash dancing ahead.
Jesse Ellis goes for the ball after blocking a CIA shot.Cody Jennings
Skagway 46, CIA 40
Cook Inlet Academy from Soldotna was the biggest 2A team Skagway had faced this season, but the Lady Panthers hit the court with very determined looks on their faces. They were not going to be intimidated, but they would need to make adjustments in what turned into one of the best games of the tournament.
Right away, the Eagles dumped the ball into 5’11” center Kelsie Leaf for the game’s first points, but Skagway’ Leaverton answered with a trey, and then followed that up with a steal and a lay-up. Leaverton then fed Ellis for a lay-up to give Skagway a 7-2 lead. But CIA came right back, with quick guard Amie Smithwick driving and dishing to Leaf, who was having her way inside. CIA took back the lead and stretched it to 13-9 at the end of the first quarter. Leaf had 8 points in the quarter.
Smithwick opened up the second quarter with a trey, and after an Ellis bucket for Skagway, Eagle forward Tiana McGahan drove for two bucket in the paint. The game appeared to be slipping away for Skagway, down 22-11, and coach Labesky called a time out.
“We had to make an adjustment on defense,” Labesky said. “We went to a 2-3 zone. They were having some trouble with their outside shots, so we felt we could pack the middle in.”
It was a key adjustment. When the Eagles tried to dump the ball inside, there were two or three Panthers on the ball right away. The Eagles could not convert anything, and Skagway got hot at just the right time. Starting with another trey by Leaverton, Skagway would reel off the next 14 points. Surdyk continued to be a force on the boards, and she also hit a big trey as well. O’Daniel also sunk a long shot and drove for an old-fashioned three-point play to give Skagway a 25-22 lead going into halftime.
The Panther fans were on their feet and going wild, as a stunned and winded Eagle team walked off the floor.
Just before the start of the second half, the Lady Panther starters had a little group hug on the court. The half then opened with a sensational no-look pass from Leaverton to Surdyk for a bucket, and then O’Daniel hit two shots and Ellis converted on a drive for a 33-22 lead. Skagway had scored 22 straight points, until McGahan knocked in a jumper for the Eagles about two minutes into the third quarter. Skagway’s press was bothering the Eagles, and their speed was a factor. During one telling moment, Ellis picked up a rebound and drove through the backcourt. An Eagle guard tried to draw the offensive foul, but Ellis put a fake on her that put the young CIA player on her backside. Skagway led by as many as 12, but Eagle freshman Megan Bauder hit a trey at the end of the third quarter to cut the lead to 39-31.
Skagway was getting in some foul trouble at this point. Ellis was whistled for her third foul and sat out the last two minutes of Q3, but Anna Korsmo, who had four fouls, stayed in and converted a big shot. The fouls were lopsided against Skagway, something not lost on the fans and coaches, and the play was sloppy at times down the stretch.
But Ellis truly brought her “A” game in the final quarter. She had five of her nine steals in Q4 and some huge rebounds down the stretch. She even shook off a questionable offensive charge, and a slap in the face that the officials did not whistle. The Lady Panthers were forced to hold off a late charge by the Eagles, as McGahan and Leaf were able to muscle in for some big buckets. Skagway tried to be patient in its shot selection but made some turnovers.
Surdyk fouled out on a questionable call with a minute to go. She had stepped around Leaf and cleanly intercepted a pass to the tall CIA center, but the referee was behind the play and blew the whistle. Leaf converted the first free throw to cut the lead to 43-40, but she missed the second and Ellis came away with the rebound. Leaverton quickly got free on the break and scored a huge lay-up with 45 seconds to go. CIA then missed two shots and Skagway came away with the ball. CIA had to foul, and Ellis hit one of two free throws to seal the 46-40 win with 4 seconds left.
Ellis finished with 15 points and 15 rebounds to lead her team. O’Daniel had 12 points and Leaverton 10. Surdyk, with 7 points and 7 rebounds, was named Skagway’s player of the game. McGahan was her team’s player of the game and led all scorers with 16, while Leaf finished with 11.
The Lady Panthers were in their second straight State Championship game and received a standing ovation from about 100 Skagway fans.
“We expected to be here,” Labesky said. “But so far the games have been opposite what we expected. We expected the first game to be the toughest, not this second game, but that’s okay.”
Watching Ninilchik and Northway battle for the other championship game slot, she said they have no preference. Ninilchik prevailed 42-39, beating a Northway team that had surprised Yakutat in the first round. Yakutat had given Skagway its toughest games of the season. Ninilchik would be on familiar ground, having won five straight championships in the last decade. But this is the start of a new decade.
Labesky said the team would take it easy, and get out of the hotel at some point. “But hopefully they won’t ask me to take them to Coldstone for milkshakes – not before a championship game."
Kaylie O’Daniel streaks down the court for a lay-up against Ninilchik.Cody Jennings
Skagway 67, Ninilchik 29
In a season filled with “bests,” this had to be the one. State championship best.
When a high school team shoots 48 percent from the field and goes a perfect 12-for-12 from the line, no one beats you.
But when a team plays the kind of defense that limits the tournament’s top scorer, Lindsey Rohr (17 ppg.) to just 3 points, no team can stay with you.
The Skagway fan base nearly doubled in size for the championship, numbering about 200, spreading behind the bench to the top of the mezzanine. There were parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles in their kids’ jerseys, and many had painted their faces blue and gold. Several held signs. They were noticed, and their team responded.
Skagway sprinted out to a quick 8-0 lead, starting off with a signature pass from O’Daniel to Anna Korsmo down low. Moments later, on a fast break, O’Daniel sent a long pass down court to streaking Jesse Ellis, who, in mid-air, tipped it to Korsmo on the other side of the lane for an easy lay-up.
Korsmo, who had been an unsung utility player most of the tournament, was in break-out mode, her coaches would say later. She would be one of four Lady Panthers in double figures at the end of this game.
“She got better with each game,” Labesky said. “We told her what she needed to do and she did it, finally, after battling big girls from Fairbanks to Ketchikan all season long.”
Ninilchik would not get on the board until the 5:18 mark of the first quarter. Only Brittani Motoyama could make a little headway against the swarming Skagway defense, scoring four points. By the end of the quarter, Skagway had its trey shooting warmed up, as Leaverton knocked in a big one. The Wolverines were stunned at this point, so much so that on the next Skagway possession, O’Daniel saw that the entire right side was left wide open. So she put it in overdrive and raced to the hoop for an uncontested lay-up. Skagway led 19-7.
“Our defense was amazing,” Labesky said. “Their guards can’t go around us.”
Ellis and O’Daniel scored to start the second quarter, and Korsmo hit another big shot from the base line. Leaverton closed the half with a nice put-in off an offensive rebound, and then got a pretty assist from O’Daniel to give the Lady Panthers a huge 37-16 lead at the half. Sixteen minutes to a state championship.
Bang! O’Daniel opened the second half with a 3-pointer from the wing. Then, bang, another one dropped for Leaverton.
On the defensive end, Skagway’s sixth person, Emily Herbig, played an incredible game. She did not score but forced many, many Wolverine turnovers, gathered rebounds, and made some nice assists. Later, she would say she was so glad that she came back to play basketball her senior year.
Toward the end of the third quarter, the crowd was kind of quiet, almost hushed in the presence of domination. Then, Korsmo hit a turn-around shot at the buzzer for Skagway, and the Sullivan Arena erupted. Skagway led 51-22.
Not done, and with no one to stop them, Skagway reeled off the first eight points of the final quarter.
“It shows how good a shape we are in,” said co-coach Mark Jennings. “It was our third game in three days and they are still sprinting down the floor.”
About midway through the final quarter, as the Lady Panther subs started shuttling in, the lead had grown to 40, enabling the running clock “mercy rule” for the rest of the game. A banner went up in the crowd behind the bench: “Skagway Panthers 29-0.”
It was over quick. The final would be 67-29, the same margin Skagway beat Ninilchik three months earlier.
Skagway was led by player of the game O’Daniel with 21, followed by Ellis 18, Leaverton 17, and Korsmo 11. Ninilchik player of the game Motoyama was the only Wolverine in double figures with 11.
Skagway finished with Polly Brown, Avi Vogel, Jayce Ellis, Elise Doland, and Amanda Jensen on the floor. As the buzzer sounded, they were rushed by their teammates, and started circling for their song and dance.
Mike Korsmo and John O'Daniel break out the 29-0 banner. Cody Jennings
And about that 29-0 record. It could have been 30-0, and some would say it is really 29-1. The Lady Panthers did lose their first exhibition game of the year to an alumni team led by former college players Savannah Ames and Courtney Mason. Those two players would run with kids every day in practice, a key to keeping the team up to championship speed. Ames, who led her team to state twice, was on the bench as an assistant much of the season.
Should there be a rematch?
“I think Savannah and Courtney would concede at this point,” Jennings said.
“I don’t know,” Labesky added. “When Savannah saw that 29-0 sign, she said it needed an asterisk.”
STATE AWARDS: For the second straight year, Skagway won the team academic award with a 3.74 GPA, just ahead of the boys team from Tri-Valley. Jesse Ellis and Kaylie O’Daniel were named to the All-Tourney team. Amanda Jensen and Elise Doland were Skagway’s Good Sports. Julene Fairbanks was Skagway’s No. 1 Fan. Oh, and we did get that first place trophy and championship net.
Senior Amanda Jensen cuts down the net. Jeff Brady Singing and dancing for the TV audience. Cody Jennings
STAT LEADERS: Skagway had three in the top 10 for scoring at State Tourney, and several others made the leaderboard in various categories: Scoring average – 3. O’Daniel 16 ppg., 6. Ellis 14.3 ppg., 10. Leaverton 12.7 ppg.; Field goal percentage – 2. Ellis 78%; 3-point percentage – 7. O’Daniel 38.5%, 9. Leaverton 33.3%; Free throw percentage – 2. O’Daniel 84.6%, 10. Surdyk 66.7%; Assists – 2. O’Daniel 4 per game; Rebounding average – 4. Ellis 9.3 rpg., 11. Surdyk 6.7 rpg., 12. O’Daniel 6 rpg.; Steals- 4. Ellis 4.7 per game; Blocks- 4. Ellis .7 per game.
Link to more State Tourney photos from the SHS Basketball Page