One by one, members of the Craig girls’ basketball team took turns cutting down the net in celebration after winning the 3A girls’ bracket of the Region V 3A/4A Basketball Tournament.
And the celebration was well-deserved. By defeating Sitka 56-40 in the championship game on Friday afternoon at Juneau-Douglas High School, the Panthers girls earned a trip to the state tournament for the first time in program history. Not only that, but they also capped off an undefeated record in 3A play this season.
“It feels great, and it’s also dually great that we went undefeated in 3A this year,” Panthers coach D.J. Hansen said. “We did two big things for our program all in one year.”
After a tight first half that saw Craig up 24-19 at the break, the Panthers opened the game up with a 10-1 run halfway through the third quarter and never looked back against a dangerous Sitka team that had completed an impressive fourth-quarter comeback a day earlier against Petersburg.
Hansen said he and his team knew what the Wolves were capable of, but the Panthers refused to give Sitka any hope in the fourth quarter. The Wolves tried to get 6-foot-2 center Sariah Ady involved early in the final quarter in an effort to get back in the game, but the junior post’s 21 points weren’t enough to overcome the double-digit deficit.
“We played it like we always play it. Every team is going to be there through three quarters, and we hope we can grow a lead in the fourth quarter that wins us games,” Hansen said. “We knew it would be up and down and it would be a close game, but Liz (Isaacs) came out and played a very strong game on the boards for us. So did Grace (Beckman). We had that senior leadership from Alex (Owen) and Grace — they pushed us through at the end.”
Down the stretch it was Owen, the team’s senior point guard and floor general, who took control. Hansen said she’s been an extension of the coaching staff on the floor all season.
“Knowing you have somebody on the floor the whole time who can control a game is a coach’s dream,” he said. “We’ve worked together for a long time, and she knows what I’m thinking before I say it. I can always count on her to drive the bus.”
For Owen and the other two senior starters, Isaacs and Beckman, this was a career that came full circle. This season’s undefeated 3A record came four short years after a winless freshman campaign.
“It’s been something I’ve been waiting for,” Owen said. “I’ve been playing with these girls since middle school, and ever since then we’ve always said, ‘Senior year. Senior year it’s going to get better.’ And it has because we worked extremely hard.
“It feels amazing. It’s all finally paid off.”
Even though Craig held a double-digit lead the entirety of the fourth quarter, Owen said her team knew Sitka was capable of scoring points in bunches. But the Panthers remained calm and collected even as reality began to set in that they were about to get their first-ever state tournament bid.
“I was trying to not smile and keep my cool with about three minutes left. I just wanted to jump up and down,” Owen said. “Sitka can get on a run and somebody has to stop them. We’ve played them before and they always seem to go on a run in the fourth quarter.
“But we played good defense, and that’s what leads to good offense.”
Owen said the Panthers have always subscribed to the old adage that defense wins championships, which rang true Friday afternoon.
“Eventually we knew they’d get tired because we’re a defense-first team,” she said. “We just kept laying it on them.”
Craig junior Melissa Castle led the way for her team with 17 points, while Beckman and Owen contributed 14 and 12 points, respectively.
Ady’s 21 points led all scorers, and no other Sitka player scored more than five points.