All 22 regular season boys basketball games Juneau-Douglas High School player gave the Crimson Bears one opportunity to go to state.
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The fact that JDHS (19-3, 7-1 SE) has won seven straight games and 14 of its last 15 contests will mean very little at 8:45 p.m. tonight when the Crimson Bears take on host Ketchikan for the Southeast Conference championship.
All that will matter will be the 32 minutes that starts with the referee's whistle and ends in joyous exhilaration or painful tears.
"We have to win Friday for our season to continue," JDHS coach George Houston said before Tuesday's practice. "We learned that hard lesson last year."
Last season, the Kings came into Juneau-Douglas gym, battled back from a double-digit halftime deficit and successfully defended their conference title.
This year Ketchikan, who topped Sitka 68-59 in Thursday's play-in game to qualify for tonight's title bout, will be looking for a third-straight trip to Anchorage.
southeast title game
who: jdhs vs. ketchikan
when: 8:45 p.m. tonight
where: ketchikan high school
what's at stake: tonight's winner advances to the state tournament in anchorage.
"They play hard, but we're going to have to come out, play hard and play smarter," JDHS point guard Tres Saldivar said. "Whoever plays the smartest is going to win the game."
Juneau-Douglas has won three straight games against Ketchikan, splitting two games Feb. 3-4 at Ketchikan and sweeping a pair at home, Feb. 24-25. The Feb. 3 meeting may hold the most important lessons.
Riding a nine-game winning streak into Ketchikan, the Kings blitzed the Bears in the first quarter. JDHS appeared overwhelmed by the surroundings and fell into a hole. Kayhi won 82-65.
"I think the first time we went down there we let our emotions get the better of us," Houston said. "A number of our players lost their composure and it was the only game I've seen our team come a little unglued from a team standpoint. We're focusing on what we have to do and hopefully we'll be able to perform under the pressure situation we'll be under."
If the atmosphere on Feb. 3 was intense, it will probably pale in comparison to the torrent JDHS will face tonight.
The key for success won't be physical play, but mental endurance. The Crimson Bears cannot allow themselves to get caught up in a hostile crowd or an intense game.
"What we'll concentrate on is not making mistakes and not doing the fancy stuff," said JDHS center Faifo Levale. "If you do the small things, the fancy stuff will come later. We need to limit our mistakes and try not to impress everybody."
For JDHS, the key all season has been in the paint.
Juneau's twin towers - 6-foot-7 Will Egolf and 6-foot-6 Clae Baker - must establish themselves as scorers and rebounders. Egolf enters tonight's game averaging a team-high 15 points and nine rebounds per game. Baker scores 8.5, good for third on the team, and averages 7.9 boards.
If those two score points down low, it could draw fouls from Ketchikan's forwards. Kings forward Weston Corporon fouled out of each game in Juneau's Feb. 24-25 series sweep.
Defensively, Juneau-Douglas must be aware of crafty Ketchikan center Mike Bruce. The bulky center is a terrific distributor from the high post and is among the state's most intense competitors. He never lets up, regardless of the score.
"He's left-handed, physical and strong," Levale said of Bruce. "You have to try and be quicker than him. You have to be aware of his left hand. I feel when I get into the game, it's my duty to shut him down as Will and Clae get a rest."
If Bruce can be neutralized, it should help the remainder of Juneau's defenders clamp down on Ketchikan's dangerous outside shooters.
Juneau-Douglas and Ketchikan are ranked second and third, respectively, in the latest Winning Percentage Index. The WPI ranks teams based on wins and strength of schedule. It also seeds teams for the state tournaments once they qualify.
In a perfect world, both JDHS and Ketchikan would go to Anchorage. But that's not reality. Tonight's winner goes to play for a state title while the loser is done.
"Being mentally tough and mentally ready is way more important than being physically ready," Saldivar said.
If the Bears' heads are right, a trip to Anchorage is within their grasp.
Now they just have to grab it.
Tim Nichols, sports editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.