The Crimson Bears' easiest regional prey over the past decade fought back with a vengeance at JDHS Saturday night. Rival Sitka shoved, clawed and just plain battled their hosts through the most hotly-contested three quarters of basketball in Juneau yet this season.
Unfortunately for the Wolves, that fourth one counts too.
The Juneau-Douglas High School boys basketball team eventually survived a tit-for-tat first half and held off a vicious late Sitka comeback to hang on for the 63-53 non-conference win. The victory gave JDHS the weekend sweep after Friday's 70-58 win and maintained the JDHS winning streak against the Wolves that began all the way back in 2001.
"We played hard start to finish, so even when things weren't going our way, we were able to stay in the game," JDHS coach Steve Potter said. "Eventually we wore them down and we were successful at what we wanted to do."
The Crimson Bears (14-5 overall, 0-2 Southeast Conference) were slowed in the first half Saturday by a loose 3-2 zone that Sitka spread out to half-court while trapping in the corners. Both teams were able to capitalize on a handful of forced turnovers early, though, and Juneau-Douglas finished the opening quarter clutching to an 18-14 lead.
Sitka (13-7 overall) started the second with an immediate, if lucky, bang, as senior wing Jeremy Espeleta banked in a three-pointer from the right sideline just 20 seconds in to cut the Bears' lead to one. The lead changed hands three times in the ensuing physical scrum that followed, with the Wolves spreading their advantage to 26-24 following one of two free throws from junior David Reynolds with 2:44 remaining in the half.
JDHS junior guard Alex DeRocher finally broke out of a mini personal shooting slump and got the home crowd back in it seconds later, hitting a a deep three-pointer from straight away to give his team the lead back. Sophomore forward Colin Gozelski then put the Bears up three with a steal along the sideline and a floating shot on the breakaway that cleared the right corner of the backboard before falling in. The teams traded free throws in the final minute before Espeleta hit a tough lay-up in the final 10 seconds to fittingly knot the score at 30-30 entering the half.
"We were not happy with how we played in the first half and I told (the players) these kids have a lot of pride and they're going to come out and battle," Potter said. "We definitely stepped it up defensively in that third quarter."
Stepping it up might be an understatement after the Bears held Sitka scoreless for the first five minutes of the third. Meanwhile, Juneau's leading scorer on the season - senior post Eric Gross - helped bloat his team's lead to 42-30 with his first five points of the game during the run.
Espeleta eventually broke the streak with a tough turnaround jumper, and kept the Wolves alive with another breakaway lay-up with 1:43 remaining. A patient and balanced offensive attack ended the third with a 47-36 advantage.
The Bears appeared to be in cruise control during the fourth, and their lead sat at a comfy 13-point level with just five minutes left in the game. Sitka wasn't ready to die yet, though. Reynolds hit a pair of free throws, picked up an easy lay-in and made another trip to the line in the next two minutes to kick off a sudden 14-2 run that awoke the Wolves' small but vocal contingent of fans.
Freshman Mik Potrzuski's free throws with 2:06 remaining eventually pulled Sitka within 56-53, but a pair of tough calls down the stretch cut the Wolves' offensive possessions short and time simply ran out on the underdogs.
Senior Geoff Craig had a tough putback, DeRocher drew a key charge and junior Cody Grussendorf put in an aggressive three points in the final two minutes to seal the win for Juneau.
Gross wound up with a team-high 12 points for the Bears, all of which came in the second half. DeRocher followed with 10 points, including a trio of three-pointers. Grussendorf and Craig added nine apiece. Senior Corey Mahar and Gozelski each chipped in eight.
Espeleta racked up a game-high 15 points for Sitka. Reynolds and junior Logan Lee chipped in 10 apiece in support.
The Bears take next weekend off before hosting SEC foe Ketchikan for a pair of games Feb. 27-28 to end their regular season. They will then play a best-of-three series against the Knights in Ketchikan March 6-7 for the SEC crown and a trip to the state tourney March 19-21 in Anchorage.
FRIDAY, FEB. 13
JDHS 70, Sitka 58
Five Bears scored in double figures and JDHS led nearly from start to finish Friday night, getting out on the break and picking up easy points off their attacking defense.
"We got into plenty of up and down type stuff and they just got tired before we did," Potter said. "Everybody contributed and lifted each other up. That's what a team does. When we're not relying on just one guy to score like that, we're a much tougher team to play."
The Bears outscored the Wolves 20-14 in the opening quarter and stretched their lead to 39-29 by half-time.
Potter credited Grussendorf with his best game of the year, even though the high-scoring junior wing didn't see things the same way at first. Grussendorf has four 20-point games thus far in the season, but scored just 14 Friday night.
"Today I went through the tape and did the stats and showed him. He had about seven rebounds, four assists and five steals. It was a little bit of everything across the board," Potter said. "I think him seeing that helped his confidence and he made good decisions (Saturday)."
Grussendorf was joined in double figures by senior Sean Bavard with 13, including a trio of three-pointers. Gross added 12, Mahar had 11 and Craig chipped in 10 to help the effort.
Reynolds led Sitka with 14 points, Lee added 10 and both Potrzuski and Anthony Perkins chipped in nine.