A little more than two months ago, Juneau-Douglas boys' basketball coach Steve Potter had more questions than answers.
After losing several key pieces from last year's team, in particular those who transferred to Thunder Mountain, Potter said he was trying to find leaders at the beginning of the season.
"I thought we were going to have some experienced continuity, but it didn't work out that way," said Potter in the Dec. 21 season preview. "Everybody is finding new roles."
Seconds after a last-second three-point heave from Ketchikan's Jeff Whicker missed its mark, the Crimson Bears community celebrated together at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka. Fans, players, coaches and cheerleaders all gathered at mid-court after a thrilling two-point victory over the Ketchikan Kings.
At that point, Potter started to get some answers.
"Our defensive rotations were probably better than they've been all year, and it's always nice when it comes together at the right time," he said. "Ketchikan's a pretty darn good team, and for us to get them twice - that was big for us."
Whicker, whose 27 points gave him the Kings single-season scoring record, had his pocket picked by sophomore guard Lance Ibesate who raced the length of the court for a lay-up and a two-point lead with only three seconds to play.
"We knew Jeff (Whicker) was going to get the ball, so my first thought was he was going to drive," said senior guard Alex DeRocher, whose 16 points led the Bears. "As soon as Lance got the ball, my hopes started leaping. Then as soon as he made it and we called time out, my hopes for the game just escalated.
"I really didn't want it to be my last senior game for the Crimson Bears. We pulled it off - it was great."
With the game tied 59-59 with 21 seconds left, Potter preached defense to the team during the timeout.
"We talked about keeping the guys in front of us and not fouling. We were going to get our hands up and only give them one shot," he said. "Whicker went to the middle and Lance got the strip really low to the ground and came up with it.
"To get that big, left-handed lay-up over (Tyler) Bell - we were pretty excited about that."
Only 18 seconds earlier, another sophomore guard, Tony Yadao, hit a game-tying three-pointer that set the stage for Ibesate to make the play on defense.
"They completely left Tony, almost daring him to shoot," Potter said. "Well, he did."
Senior forward Eric Sele was the Bears' second leading scorer with 9 points in what was a very balanced offensive attack. DeRocher was the only player for the Bears who scored in double figures. Tyler Bell had 13 points for the Kings as well.
Just three nights prior, DeRocher hit a baseline jump shot with eight seconds remaining to give the Bears their first victory over the Kings all season. The loss forced the Kings into a win-or-go-home situation heading into their Thursday night tilt with Thunder Mountain.
After pulling out the victory over the Falcons, the Kings turned their sights back on the Bears. Thursday, Ketchikan had to hold off a fourth-quarter comeback bid by JDHS for the win. That forced a final game Saturday night with a trip to state on the line.
Potter said there were some changes made for that final game, especially on the defensive end. After trailing by 14 points in the second half Friday night, the Bears deployed a zone defense that helped fuel their late-game comeback attempt. Juneau-Douglas, who rarely played zone defense during the season, found something that worked for them.
"We got down early (Saturday) and we decided what we were doing wasn't working, so we switched to the zone trap," Potter said. "Our halfcourt defense was struggling against them and our full-court defense hasn't been our strength this year.
"So we tried a zone-trapping scheme and it seemed to disrupt them."
Potter said he couldn't take credit for the zone defense that gave the Kings trouble, however.
"(Assistant coach) Robert Casperson had been pumping me all year to try it out, so I finally let him talk me into it," he said. "It was his idea to go to that. That defense is kind of his baby."
The Bears undoubtedly peaked at the right time as they worked their way through early-season struggles to find their identity. And as the clock turned to zero and the Bears celebrated, it was two young role players that stepped up when given the opportunity.
Ibesate and Yadao were not only big in the final minute of Saturday's championship game, but they, along with the rest of the Bears' bench, are crucial to the Bears' run in the home-stretch of the season.
"Tony has done a phenomenal job. He drives to get other people open and he can go up with it because he's got great ball control. He's just a great team player," said DeRocher. "Lance has really stepped it up at a point guard position. It's great relief for Victor (Wilson) when he starts getting tired from handling the ball up and down the court.
"I think in the next couple of years they're going to be phenomenal basketball players."
But the future is now for the Bears as they prepare for a trip to Anchorage for the state tournament, and DeRocher said they're as close to the top of their game as they have been allseason.
"We all came into the (conference) tournament really hungry, and we used that fire to help get some extra pep in our step," he said. "Going into that game it was more of a team togetherness, not a one-man thing. We've peaked at the perfect moment, I'd say."
Potter said he expects the Bears to be a seventh or eighth seed when the seedings are released later today, which means they will have a first-round matchup against one of the top teams in the state.
But there is still reason for hope as not every state champion has been a top seed going into the tournament, something of which Potter and his Southeast Conference champion Crimson Bears are well aware.
Matthew Tynan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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