Undefeated Juneau-Douglas hasn't played in a tight game yet this season, a trend that's not expected to continue as Southeast Region archrival Ketchikan treks to Juneau for a showdown between two of Alaska's premier girls' basketball programs.
A lot will be on the line every time these two top-rated teams tip off this year, including tonight's and Saturday's 8 p.m. games at JDHS.
The Crimson Bears (5-0, 2-0) and Kings (7-1, 0-0) are two favorites to do some serious damage in the state tournament, but only one will go to Anchorage with a shot at a state crown this March. Ketchikan's lone loss this season came at Wasilla, 51-46, in the Doc Larson Roundball Classic.
"It will be good to see where both teams are at early in the season," Kings first-year coach Kelly Smith said. "I know Juneau is fighting through some injuries, and we're kind of a new-look squad this year with a new coach and a couple of different players. It will be fun to see how we match up against each other.
"We're excited to come up, and I'm excited to be a part of the Juneau-Ketchikan rivalry."
JDHS coach Lesslie Knight said the Kings are always one of the best teams on the Bears' schedule.
"Ketchikan is some of the toughest competition we'll see all year, and they were the toughest we saw last year by far," she said. "It is always a battle, and the rivalry makes for very tough, competitive games."
The Bears have been without senior wing Emily Johnson all season, though she is expected to return to action next week in Colorado. But senior forward Brittany Fenumiai will make her return tonight after also battling a bum knee.
"I'm ready to go," Fenumiai said confidently at practice Thursday. "I'm excited to play again, especially since its the last home series against Ketchikan in my senior year. It would have been a bummer to have to sit out."
Fenumiai said matchups with Ketchikan are physical and fervent.
"The games are pretty intense, and we have good crowds show up," she said. "We get great support from our school, our parents and our community. Our team gets really hyped up."
Fenumiai, a four-year member of the varsity, said the Juneau girls have played the Ketchikan girls since middle school, so the teams know each other well.
"Their team is quick, they have some shooters, they have good passing and they connect with each other well," she said. "We've been studying them for so long, but everybody's game changes every year. They improve, and we just have to adjust to how they're playing."
"No surprises," Knight agreed. "Their seniors are very strong, just like we are. We've had an opportunity to watch those kids grow up, and they're down one player without Laci Effenberger, but they're still very solid."
Effenberger, last year's starting point guard, transferred out of state after leading the Kings to the state tournament and making the all-tournament team.
"She transferred out, and we have some girls that have stepped up and filled that role," Smith said. "Things are working pretty well so far."
Senior point guard Alexis Edwardson has filled the void nicely.
Edwardson is a threat to score from anywhere on the court, pacing the Kings with 12.5 points per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the field, including 10 of 25 from behind the arc. She's also capable at the free throw line, having made 19 of 25 from the stripe. She also averages 3.5 steals a game.
The capable hands of the Bears' defensive-minded back court duo of Karli Brakes and Mahlet Tingley will likely both get a shot at checking Edwardson.
"She's a good little guard," Fenumiai said of Edwardson. "She's a good shooter and she sees the court well."
Leading the Kings in scoring and rebounding is forward Crystal Blair, who is putting up 15.1 points a game and pulling down 6.8 boards.
"She's my size (5-foot-7) or maybe a little shorter, and she's been playing in the post since freshman or sophomore year," Fenumiai said of Blair. "She's a strong girl and she's not afraid to finish. She'll go up even if there's somebody right in her face. I think she's a great player, and hopefully we'll have an answer for her this weekend."
Blair also is a threat from downtown, where she has made 6 of 17 on the year from behind the arc.
Knight said she might try 5-foot-10 junior forward Sarah Tarver on Blair to see if her length can frustrate the Kings' leading scorer down low.
"But they pull her out on the perimeter some and she's made some three-pointers this year," Knight said. "We'll try a little height, where last year we had shorter players on her that were maybe more mobile."
University of Alaska-Fairbanks-bound guard Ciara Patton - a future teammate of Johnson - adds some more offensive firepower, where she averages 8.1 points while dishing 2.3 assists and pulling down 3.4 boards per game. Patton has made 10 of 31 3-point attempts this season.
Knight said Ketchikan, much like Juneau-Douglas, likes to get after teams defensively, and these games will have a full-court feel.
"One of the things they do really well is they press; they put a lot of pressure on the ball and then fast break," she said. "They will penetrate and kick out to shoot their threes, so we have to stop the penetration and not allow the kick out.
"They play a lot like us," she continued. "The one thing that has been our strength through the years is that we've been a little deeper on the bench. Our ultimate goal is always to get them in foul trouble, and we were not successful down at regions doing that (last year). But we want to get to the free throw line and put some of their starters on the bench."
Let the games begin.