The homestretch begins tonight in the race for the overall top seeds in next month's Southeast Conference boys' and girls' basketball tournaments, with four crucial games for the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bear teams.
The Bear boys (10-7, 2-2) play host to conference top dog Ketchikan (15-5, 5-1) in what will be a good measuring stick for how far JDHS, currently on a five-game winning streak, has progressed since its early-season struggles.
So the No. 1 seed could be on the line this weekend for the Bears, and the top seed grants the winner a first-round bye in the conference tournament March 4-7.
"If we win out, then that wins the league for us," JDHS boys' coach Steve Potter said. "But we could lose one to Thunder Mountain and still win the league if we beat Ketchikan twice here and the point spread is right. We just want to win the rest of our games and get that No. 1 seed."
The second and third seeds play each other the first day of the tournament, and the winner of that game plays the No. 1 seed on the second day. The loser of that game then plays the loser from the first day to determine who plays in the championship game, so the top seed would just have to win two games to earn a state tourney bid, whereas one of the lower two seeds would have to win three games, Potter said.
"Every other year we had three teams, it was a one-and-done-type situation," Potter said. "I think that getting the bye is a plus."
To have a shot at the bye, the Bears will have to first sweep Ketchikan, which dominated the first two games of the season series at home the weekend of Jan. 15-16.
"I watched tape of Saturday's Ketchikan-Thunder Mountain game and (the Kings) certainly extended their defense a lot more against Thunder Mountain than they ever did against us," Potter said of the Ketchikan press. "We've been working on our press break, hoping to negate some of their aggressiveness.
"There's risk associated with pressure and when you bring more than one guy up on the ball, somebody's got to be open. We just have to hit our guys in the right spot."
Potter said the key to the sweep is simple: Execute.
"The first game down there, they stomped us," he said. "We weren't ready to play a high-intensity game. I think we now have a little bit better understanding that we can't just walk out on the floor and expect to be good. You have to get yourself in the right frame of mind and be focused. I think our focus has improved and we've really only had a couple of lapses since then."
Potter said he feels his team is still growing.
We still have four more games before regionals, even though it feels like it's right around the corner," he said. "We're still a work in progress, and I'm hoping that we haven't played our best basketball yet."
Sweep could lock up No. 1 for girls
While Potter believes a first-round bye for his team would be beneficial, JDHS girls' coach Lesslie Knight isn't so sure. Knight said she might actually prefer a warm-up game due to the noisy atmosphere where Mt. Edgecumbe plays, which is an airport hangar.
"The environment is, 'Wow,' like a rocket (taking off), so it's nice to have a game to get warmed up. I have mixed emotions about it. I don't know that other people would feel that way but I think going into regions, I'm OK with either seeded position," Knight said. The really nice thing if you're seeded two or three is you get a warm-up game, and there's a lot of pressure going into the tournament seeded one."
"We're going to go down (to Ketchikan), try some stuff and hopefully come away with a couple of wins," Knight said, "but I'm OK either way."
The Bears (16-2, 3-1), looking to extend their undefeated road record, will be back at full strength this weekend at Ketchikan (18-3, 5-1) after not having junior forward Sarah Tarver last weekend against Colony. Tarver was in Arizona at a college soccer showcase.
"I think we're fairly healthy, Tarver's back, Brittany (Fenumiai's) healthy, Mahlet (Tingley's) hurting a little bit but we'll have a lot of bodies to throw at them," Knight said. "The ultimate goal is to wear them down. Emily (Johnson's) coming along. She's spending extra time working on her shot and shooting free throws. Her defensive containment is looking better, and we may look at using Emily some on (Crystal) Blair this week."
Point guard Alexis Edwardson scored 16 points against the Bears in the Kings' 46-43 series-opening win, with 13 of those coming at the free throw line. Junior point guard Karli Brakes and Tingley, a senior, will draw the assignment against Edwardson, who then put up 12 points in the second meeting, in which the Bears rolled the Kings by 20.
"What we tend to do is leave and help, but you can't leave her because she's a shooter," Knight said of Edwardson. "If she gets the open shot, she can knock it down. The bottom line is, we'll throw two little point guards (Tingley and Brakes) at her all night and wear her down. We may put a little more pressure on her this time."
Tarver and Johnson will get the call against Blair, one of the state's top players.
"As far as Tarver and Emily on Blair, they're both very athletic for their height, and they're both long," Tingley said. "It will be hard for her to get shots off, and they can move well and keep up with her. With Edwardson, Karli's quick enough to contain her. I don't think we have any worries defensively as long as we can produce on offense."
And there should be a good crowd, Knight said, with the boys' team in Juneau.
"Their boys are out of town so there should be a fair amount of people at the girls' game," she said. "It's always fun to play there, and it's probably my favorite gym in the Southeast. There's great lighting and great seating, and a beautiful floor. We like playing down there. And we like playing on the road. There are no family pressures or distractions. We're anxious to get going. Our only losses come at home, so what does that say?"