The University of Alaska Anchorage men's basketball team got a close look at one who got away Thursday as Nate Strong of tiny Tenakee Springs scored 37 points to lead the Montana State-Billings Yellowjackets to a 113-104 victory over the Seawolves in Billings, Mont.
Strong, who didn't play high school basketball because his Southeast Alaska village was too small to field a team, made his first six shots of the game and had 23 points by halftime. A 6-foot-5, 220-pound sophomore forward, Strong, 24, made 13 of his 20 shots from the field with three 3-pointers and he shot 8-for-9 from the free-throw line.
While many basketball fans in Southeast Alaska knew about Strong - especially based on his 53-point, 24-rebound performance in last year's B Bracket championship game of the Gold Medal Tournament in Juneau - he was a virtual unknown outside of the area. Strong played for one year at Skagit Valley Community College in Washington, but was going to quit because he didn't have enough money to continue going to college. That's when MSU-Billings came calling (one of MSU-Billings' assistant coaches attended Skagit Valley).
``Guess we know about him now,'' UAA coach Charlie Bruns told the Billings Gazette after the game. ``He played a phenomenal game. I just love watching him play.
``He does it inside. He does it outside,'' Bruns said. ``He creates a lot of problems. He allows the game to come to him. Whatever you give him, he takes. And tonight, he made a game of it.''
Strong, who is the current Pac West Conference Player of the Week, said he enjoyed the game, which was the Pac West opener for both teams. The Yellowjackets (9-3 overall and 1-0 Pac West) have been the top-scoring team in NCAA Division II the last two years, and Strong said he enjoys the team's wide-open style of play. In his last four games, Strong has scored 30, 26, 28 and 37 points.
``It was fun. It's always fun, though,'' Strong said after he'd taken a quick dip in the MSU-Billings swimming pool to cool off after the game. ``There is no other system like this in the country where you have the green light to shoot it.''
One of the few Seawolves (6-4, 0-1) who knew about Strong was senior guard Chris Hamey, who scored a season-high 24 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead UAA. Hamey and UAA's Shaun O'Shea, both Juneau residents, played against Strong in various recreational basketball leagues.
``He's been doing that in Juneau and up and down Southeast,'' Hamey told the Anchorage Daily News. ``I'm happy for him.''
Hamey was disappointed in UAA's continued road woes in Billings, where the Seawolves have not won since 1995. UAA led 56-55 at halftime, but ended up suffering its first loss to a Division II team this season. UAA's other losses this year have been to Washington, Louisville and Kentucky.
``Of all the ones here, this one seemed like we could get it,'' Hamey said. ``We felt we had to keep them under 85 points. That was our goal. We ran with them, and it caught up to us.''
``We're the best-conditioned team in the country,'' Strong said. ``We just had to keep the pressure on in the second half. All 10 guys can play. We're pretty deep.''
UAA now heads to Western New Mexico, the second stop on its five-game, 12-day road trip, while MSU-Billings will host the University of Alaska Fairbanks on Saturday. UAF (6-9, 1-0) beat Western New Mexico 84-67 on Thursday in the Nanooks' Pac West season opener.
Matt Carle, who played high school basketball for JuneauDouglas and Hydaburg, scored 17 points and was one of four Nanooks to score in double figures. On Monday, Carle scored a team-high 24 points as UAF upset Cal State-Chico 95-92.