Practice was over for the Juneau-Douglas High School girls basketball team Wednesday night, but sophomore forward Letasha McKoy was strapping on a pair of bulky arm pads to work on a drill with fellow sophomore forward Danielle Larson.
McKoy used the pads to push and bump Larson, who worked on her post moves while driving to the basket around McKoy's defense. While McKoy and Larson worked underneath one of the JDHS main gym baskets with freshman Heather Dillon, senior center Hilary Rehfeld and freshman forward Mary Rehfeld were in coach Jim Hamey's office watching as Hamey critiqued game videos.
With the two-time defending state champion and current No. 1 East Anchorage Thunderbirds coming to town this weekend, the No. 3 Crimson Bears are working overtime preparing for the games. Juneau hosts East for two games on Friday and Saturday, with varsity games at 8 p.m. and junior varsity games at 6:15 p.m. each night. The games will be aired on KJNO, 630-AM radio.
"We think this might be one of the better teams to ever play high school basketball in Alaska," Hamey said of East. "We're honored to have them come so our fans have a chance to see them."
East (13-2 overall) hasn't lost a game in Alaska in two seasons and both East losses came in tournaments in California. The T-Birds have already beaten Juneau (11-3) once this year, a 61-40 defeat in the East T-Bird Classic on Jan. 25 that's East's closest game against an Alaska team this season. Most of East's Alaska games tend to have scores like the T-Birds' last two victories, a 103-29 victory over Dimond on Tuesday and a 94-27 decision over Service last Saturday.
"They do have a very good team, but we do, too," Hamey said. "We're hoping we can play with them. I thank it helps that we've played them before. Their pressure and relentlessness will still be there, but it's hard to simulate that in practice. Having seen it, our kids will know what to expect."
When Juneau played East two weeks ago, the Crimson Bears tried to slow down the T-Birds so they didn't go on one of their frequent 20-2 spurts. Juneau only trailed by six points at halftime, 27-21, but the Crimson Bears wore down in the second half. Juneau had just nine players make the four-games-in-four-days road trip, and Hilary Rehfeld developed the stomach flu on the trip and saw limited action. This time, Juneau will be able to use its JV players off the bench for extra depth and Rehfeld said she's healthy.
"We're very excited to play them again," Rehfeld said. "I think we do have a chance, but we'll have to keep our heads in the game and not commit the stupid foul. Rebounding is the key, and when they pressure us we have to keep from making mistakes and turnovers."
That's one reason McKoy and Larson were working on their post moves. When the two teams played last month, Juneau outshot East 46 percent to 23 percent, but the T-Birds grabbed 26 more rebounds and took 27 more shots than the Crimson Bears. Hamey said East grabbed 30 offensive rebounds, which he said is way too many.
"We're going to have to block out," McKoy said. "They like to use their hips a lot. It has to be like 50-50, we have to be aggressive."
East features four seniors who have all played key roles with the team since they were freshmen. Senior 5-foot-11 guard Natalie Jones has already signed to play for Arizona next year, and 6-2 senior forward Tenecia Macon will also probably sign an NCAA Division I scholarship this year. Senior guards Christa Wilson and Janessa Webb are capable of playing NCAA Division II or low-Division I basketball.
But when Juneau played East in January, it was the performance of 5-9 junior forward Ashley Mickens that set the tone. Mickens, who had been averaging fewer than seven points a game before East played Juneau, wound up winning the T-Bird Classic's MVP award. She scored 22 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and made five steals against Juneau, then followed that up the next night with 18 points and 22 rebounds in an 82-48 victory over Colony. Since the Juneau game, Mickens has led her team in scoring in three of East's four games, including 22 points each against Service and Dimond last week.
"She's been their leading scorer ever since," Hamey said. "But they've got a number of people who can put the ball through the hoop. We're depending on everyone this weekend, but Hilary's got to step up for us. She needs to get some boards and get some points in the paint."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.