ANCHORAGE — A funny thing happened on the way to the state basketball tournament championships in Anchorage. The Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears girls’ basketball team turned into a competitive team and a state title contender.
“And we turned into a varsity basketball team,” JDHS coach Dee Boster said. “When we started the year we probably weren’t considered a varsity team. No one expected us to win regions. No one expected us get to state. No one expected us to beat Dimond.”
No one except 12 girls in red and black and a tiny fan base whose cheers for the underdog spread statewide and couldn’t be silenced even in a 42-35 semifinal defeat to the West Valley Wolfpack on Friday at Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena.
“We don’t want to play them again,” West Valley coach Steve Caciari said. “I tell you what, that Juneau coach Dee, she has improved that team more than anybody has with a team this year.”
Caciari knows the improvement first hand as the Wolfpack destroyed JDHS 55-29 early in the year. Yet on Friday, it was a physical Crimson Bears team that bumped inside and pushed the ball up court for a 9-8 first quarter lead, with Gabi Fenumiai scoring six of her 12 game points.
Caciari knows the improvement because the Wolfpack stopped JDHS 44-35 mid season. On Friday, however, it was a Crimson Bears team that overcame six turnovers and a five-point deficit in the second quarter to take a 16-14 lead at the half. In that quarter Kayla Balovich helped spell Fenumiai inside and Sierra Tagaban remained calm in the backcourt with Marissa Brakes.
Caciari knows the improvement because the Wolfpack slipped past JDHS 39-31 as the regular season dwindled down to a few remaining weeks. On Friday that Crimson Bears team saw a more fundamentally prepared Nicole George, Kaitlin Fagerstrom, Kymberlee Kelly and Ari Gross help nurse a tiny glimmer of hope into a 28-27 advantage starting the fourth quarter and allowed Fenumiai, Siddeek and Brakes to go on a 5-0 run.
With 1:06 remaining and trailing by one point, a deep JDHS 3 went in and out. West Valley made two free throws. A questionable no-call and turnover and West Valley made two more free throws. A missed assignment on the press and West Valley ended the game with a wide-open buzzer beater.
“Every time we played them they got better,” Caciari said. “And better and better and better. And they proved it again last night when they beat Dimond, that was not a fluke by any means. Brakes has improved a lot, Fenumiai is impossible to handle, Siddeek can’t be left alone ... my hat is off to their coaching staff to have them so prepared. And they almost got us here.”
Four times the Wolfpack have met the Crimson Bears this season. When told there was a rumor the Crimson Bears want to play West Valley again on Sunday, coach Caciari said “Thankfully we will be out of town. I don’t want to play them again. I didn’t even want to think about this being the fourth game.”
Siddeek led the Crimson Bears on paper with 13 points and six rebounds. Brakes led the Crimson Bears on the court with no points, five rebounds, six assists and the pressure on being a point guard on a team whose past state titles have made them a target for the rest of the 49th state.
“We weren’t even supposed to be here,” Boster said. Players filed past her with tears in their eyes, almost as many tears as Boster shed as she spoke.
“We play for third or fifth tomorrow but regardless of what we get, we weren’t supposed to be here. It doesn’t matter at this point and time. The team has made leaps and bounds from where they were at the beginning of the season to know. There is nothing to be ashamed of. They can hold their heads up and be proud.”
JDHS will face Colony at 9 a.m. Saturday for third place in Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena.
George scored four and grabbed nine boards, Tagaban and Fagerstrom scored two apiece, Kelly and Balovich one each. Fenumiai had a game-high nine rebounds.
West Valley’s Hannah Mattson scored 16, Callie Franz and Marina Washburn eight, Caitlyn Brice six, Jill Phillips and Madison Ackiss two apiece. JDHS hit 11-of-16 shots at the charity stripe, West Valley went 4-for-10.
Eleven-for-16 is 68.8 percent, better than the Crimson Bears usually shoot. And that is another improvement.