Color Photos by Klas Stolpe (above) and Cody Jennings and Jeff Brady (below)
Skagway 49, Ninilchik 45
In their opening game, the Lady Panthers succeeded in knocking off the most successful team in 2A history, the Ninilchik Lady Wolverines. A perennial state tourney favorite, Ninilchik hit the court with a swagger that may have been their undoing. They soon found they were dealing with a young Skagway team that was quick with their hands on defense, quick to the rebound, and quick on the break.
Skagway trailed only once, after all-state Wolverine forward Grace Ehlers made the opening basket. But Skagways Kaylie ODaniel came right back with the first of many drives to the hoop. When she didnt score on those drives, she managed to get fouled and then converted most of her free throws en route to a game-high 20 points. As a team, Skagway shot just 25 percent from the field in the first half, but made 13 of 19 from the free throw line. It kept them ahead 14-11 at the end of the first quarter, and the Panther lead was up to 25-17 at the half.
Skagway came out with a vicious press in the second half, forcing three straight Wolverine turnovers. And there was no better time for Jesse Ellis to break out of her post-season scoring slump. Right after a Wolverine miscue, Ellis took the ball and drove down the middle for a strong lay-up. A minute later, she banked in a three-pointer from the top of the key, and then got free to swish another one. Skagway led by as many as 18 points in the third quarter, limiting the Wolverines to hardly any second-chance points, thanks to the stellar rebounding of Ellis, Kaitlyn Surdyk and Anna Korsmo
But Ninilchik would not go easily. Ehlers converted a three-point play at the end of the third quarter to cut the lead to 41-28, and the Panthers gave up some easy buckets inside at the start of the fourth quarter. Skagway answered with shots by Korsmo and ODaniel and some key free throws by Rori Leaverton to keep the cushion at 9 or 10 points until the final minute and a half.
The Panthers had been able to shut down any outside threat by the Wolverines, but they gave up two three-pointers in the waning moments which made the fans and coaches jittery. When the Panthers had the ball, they chewed up some time and drew fouls, eventually getting into a double bonus situation. Although they converted only half of their free throws in the final quarter, they were enough to secure a 49-45 win.
The game ended a bit ugly with a Ninilchik player pushing ODaniel to the floor in the backcourt, probably out of frustration. It was the first time this decade that Wolverines had lost a first round game at State. The flagrant foul kept that Wolverine out of their next game in the consolation round, which they lost.
Nearly 40 fans from Skagway and the Anchorage area greeted the team with cheers as they ascended the Sullivan arena steps after the game. Ellis was selected the player of the game with a double-double, 12 points and 11 rebounds.
Next up for Skagway was Point Hope, which had fast-breaked to a 65-52 win over Chevak in the first round. On the other side of the bracket, Southeast champ Yakutat held off Noorvik 40-35, and Northway beat Cook Inlet 41-22.
Photos by Klas Stolpe
Skagway 49, Point Hope 39
Prior to the semifinal, Kaylie ODaniel, whose mom Cindy celebrated a birthday on St. Patricks Day, passed out green shoelaces to her teammates. They were hard to miss as the teams began their warm-ups and lined up for introductions.
A win by Skagway would put the Panthers in unchartered territory: a state championship game.
I just told them to play their game, said coach Lara Labesky. I emphasized boxing out and taking care of the basketball.
ODaniel then promptly scored the games first six points, and Rori Leaverton sank a three-pointer to give the Panthers an early 9-2 advantage. Point Hope, another perennial state qualifier, is a quick team that likes to press. For the most part, Skagway handled the pressure, but the Harpoonerettes were able to force some turnovers late in the first quarter, cutting the Skagway lead to 11-8. They then tied the score on a trey by forward Donna Nash to open the second quarter.
Point Hope would take the lead on a free throw on the next possession, but the Panthers would take it right back. Point Hopes Sam Lane was tough to contain down low, and guard Tammy Burgess sank a trey, as the lead switched. But the Panthers answered again with a key bucket by reserve Nikita Ford.
Skagways dribble-drive offense doesnt always result in a bucket, but on this night it resulted in fouls against key players on the opposing side. The Panthers were in the bonus by the five minute mark of the second quarter, and ODaniel, Leaverton, Anna Korsmo, and Katilyn Surdyk sank nine-of-ten from the line. Skagway led 24-21 at the break.
We shot free throws so much better, said Labesky.
Photos by Klas Stolpe
Some teams get spooked at the line at State against the arenas background, but the Panthers had no problem shooting on the big stage. Leaverton, who would later be named player of the game for Skagway, opened the second half with another trey, but the Harpoonerettes outside game also heated up, and they were able to tie the game three times during the third quarter.
Skagway held a slim 36-35 lead to open the final quarter, and on the first play Korsmo grabbed a big offensive rebound and drew a fourth foul against Lane. Point Hope coach Rex Rock pulled his star for the next four minutes, and that may have been a crucial mistake. His team would not score a bucket until the 1:30 mark. With the Skagway crowd yelling DEFENSE, the Panthers responded with their own pressure and forced numerous bad shots and turnovers, building a 48-35 lead.
The Harpoonerettes were worn out, gasping for air during breaks, while the Panthers still had their legs and continued to,convert their free throws. Leaverton even nailed three after being fouled on a trey that she nearly drained. She would later be named Skagways player of the game.
Lane came back but it was too late, and she promptly fouled out.
The smiles grew bigger on the Panther players as the seconds wound down, and when the buzzer sounded they leapt into their coaches arms on the bench, and found their parents in the stands.
Labesky was aware they had just accomplished what no other Skagway team had done, and was proud of how the team had responded against a very good team.
We held together nicely, she said. We had a rough stretch at one point against their press, but we didnt implode like we might have done in the past. We worked through it. Its a sign of maturity.
Next up would be Yakutat, an easy winner over Northway, who would be seeking its third straight state title. The Panthers had reached their goal of meeting their Southeast rival in the state championship game, and seemed poised to make a statement that this young team was not just here by a stroke of St. Pattys Day luck. Green shoelaces not withstanding.
Photos by Klas Stolpe
Yakutat 53, Skagway 38
The Skagway crowd had grown to more than 50 for the championship game. A few more parents, aunts, uncles and cousins showed up for the finale. They made a lot of noise, at times equal to the larger crowd from Yakutat.
The rest of the 4,000 or so fans in the Sully were sensing that there could be an upset, and the Panthers certainly were on track for one in the first half.
Skagways Jesse Ellis controlled the tip and Rori Leaverton dashed through the middle of the Eagles defense for a lay-up, an early statement that Skagway was ready to battle its rivals. Yakutats Esther Esbenshade then answered with a bucket inside, but both teams were a little tight as Yakutat led by just 7-5 at the end of the first quarter.
The second quarter belonged to Skagway. After Kaylie ODaniel tied the game on a jumper, Ellis made a three-pointer for the lead, and then added another bucket. Leaverton also drove for a score and knocked in three-of-four free throws. Halftime score was Skagway 17, Yakutat 12. And the Panther fans were on their feet as their team left the court.
Being up by five over Yakutat at half was a victory in itself, coach Lara Labesky said later.
Skagway was talking on defense, challenging every shot, and racking up rebounds. Suddenly, that undefeated season of Yakutats looked in jeopardy, but Eagles coach Charlie Russell said his team wasnt worried.
That first half, we couldnt buy a bucket, he said. It reminded me of the first game against Skagway in their house. But these girls have played together for so long. We just talked about it (at halftime) and went on out there and did what we had to do.
Full court pressure: Skagway had been able to handle it against scrappy Point Hope, but Yakutats press was relentless at the start of the second half of the championship game.
After opening with a three-pointer by Rose Fraker, Yakutat stole the ball in the backcourt and scored a lay-up to tie the game. Leaverton answered with a trey of her own, but then Yakutat outscored Skagway 20-3 over the next six minutes, mostly in transition.
We came out and made a couple turnovers against their press and then missed some lay-ups with no one to rebound, and all of a sudden they were up by five, Labesky said. Our shots werent falling and it seemed like we came out in the third quarter without any legs.
But the upside is we never gave up.
A three-pointer by ODaniel at the end of the quarter gave Skagway some hope, as they were down 37-26 going into the final period. ODaniel got a nice feed from Ellis to start the fourth quarter, and then added two free throws to cut the lead to 37-31. Yakutat then turned the ball over, and Russell called a time out.
But the Panthers could not convert much the rest of the way, forcing some bad shots on those tired legs, while Yakutat got some good play on the inside from Katrina Fraker and Ellen Esbenshade and pushed the lead up to 17. Another trey by Leaverton and two jumpers by Anna Korsmo kept Skagway within striking distance, but Rose Fraker then sealed the win with four straight free throws.
Although tired and a bit frustrated, the Panther players still held their heads pretty high at the end of the game, and received a great ovation from fans on both sides. ODaniel was selected Skagways player of the game.
Surrounded by her players, Labesky and assistant coach Mark Jennings told them they should be proud of themselves.
I felt the effort was pretty good, Labesky said later. For the most part, we executed pretty well. We just had a lapse in the third quarter.
They should be proud of themselves. We played two good games to get to the finals. We just didnt win the final game.
Russell was very complimentary about Skagway.
Skagway is tough, he said. Coming in here and taking second place is nothing to sneeze at. They are going to be here for the next four years. It was great to see two Southeast teams in the finals.
Russell said he was losing two key senior scorers and team leaders in Rose Fraker and Esther Esbenshade, but hoped his underclassmen would rise up. But he has no freshmen coming in next year and jokingly said that if Skagway had any to spare, to send them up to Yakutat.
Thats not likely. Skagway has freshmen anxious to join a team with everyone coming back next year. What Skagway was able to accomplish this year was the talk of the tourney.
We got so many compliments about the team from other coaches, officials, other media, Labesky said. Everyone was amazed with what we did as a team of mostly freshmen and sophomores. Overall it was quite impressive.
Photo by Jeff Brady
Skagway may have been the second best team at State, but they were the smartest team, taking home the Academic Award with an overall grade point average of 3.78.
Skagways ODaniel and Ellis made the all-tourney team, which usually means all-state honors will follow later this month.
Skagway had several players in the top 10 in stats for the tourney. ODaniel was third in scoring with 50 points, just a couple behind Yakutats Fraker and Point Hopes Burgess. Leaverton was 12th with 37 points. Skagway had three players in the top 10 in rebounding: Ellis with 26, Surdyk 25, and Korsmo 24. Ellis was third in steals, and seventh in assists. Surdyk and ODaniel made the top 10 in free throw percentage, shooting better than 70 percent at the line. Leaverton and Ellis made the top 10 in 3-point shooting percentage, shooting 40 and 37 percent respectively.
Kaitlyn Surdyk and Soo-Bin Kang were given tourney shirts for being Skagways representatives on the Good Sports Team.
It was the 25th anniversary of the first 2A State Tourney, and the Skagway girls were mentioned in the program. In 1984, the Lady Panthers lost the fourth place game to King Cove.
See 2A complete game statistics at the March Madness Alaska 2009 link at: