ANCHORAGE — All signs pointed to a much sweeter result.
There were the eight seniors who had been there before. There was the shorthanded opponent, missing two key players because of injury. There was the favorable draw leading up to the final game.
A second consecutive 4A girls’ basketball state title was surely in the cards for the Juneau-Douglas Crimson Bears.
But Wasilla had a plan of its own.
In a grind-it-out slugfest between the defending champs and the same team they beat to win the crown a year ago, it was the Warriors who marched off Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena floor as 2010-11 champions.
Wasilla outlasted Juneau-Douglas 36-30 in Saturday night’s finals of the ASAA/First National Bank Alaska Basketball State Championships.
“I had faith all the way through,” senior Sarah Tarver said. “Even the last four seconds, I thought somehow we were going to get through. We just didn’t make our shots. Wasilla did an awesome job.”
This wasn’t the type of game Juneau-Douglas is accustomed to playing. It was ragged at times, brutally physical at others, but close the entire way.
In getting to the state finale, JDHS buried opponents early and coasted to victories. They scored 18 of the first 20 points in the semifinals against Colony for an eventual 47-34 win. They led 18-4 after the opening quarter of a 60-22 shellacking of South Anchorage in the opening round.
On Saturday, it took the Bears four minutes to make their first field goal. They trailed 9-8 going into the second quarter and 14-12 at halftime, eventually finishing with their lowest offensive output of the entire season.
Tarver, a First Team All-State selection who played the entire tournament on a sore ankle she severely sprained two weeks ago, got into foul trouble early and wasn’t her same dominant self. She played just 18 minutes and made just 2 of 10 field goals.
Yet the Bears had their chances down the stretch, even after falling behind by as many as six in the third quarter and five early in the fourth.
Tarver gave the Bears (27-2 overall) a 27-26 lead with 3:30 to play when she made a steal at midcourt and finished with a left-handed layup, drawing a foul.
After she missed the free throw, the Warriors took a 28-27 lead on a Kelsey Cottle basket.
The 6-foot-5 Cottle pestered the Bears’ post players with her length and height all night, finishing with nine points and seven rebounds.
“I don’t think that’s what really hurt us,” Tarver said. “Wasilla was just playing an awesome game. They deserved it.”
Tarver pulled the Bears within 1, 30-29, at the 2:06 mark, but that was last field goal the team managed.
Cottle blocked Nani Ostrom’s shot when she drove to the basket with a minute left for what could have been the tying bucket.
The Warriors hit six free throws inside the final minute to salt the game away.
“We worked for this for four years and I had no idea how amazing it would feel,” Cottle said. “We have such a special bond. We just believed it. We knew if we believed and worked hard, then we would get it. And we did.”
JDHS had an abysmal night shooting the ball. At one point in the third quarter, the Bears had made just 16 percent of their shots.
They finished shooting 23 percent from the field and 0-for-10 from 3-point range.
“Give Wasilla credit. They covered our shooters,” JDHS coach Lesslie Knight said. “They had some very tall perimeter players out there so we didn’t get easy looks.”
The Warriors played without Alyssa Hutchins and Leisl Brown, both of whom were key contributors during the regular season. Hutchins started every game and is one of the team’s leading scorers, and Brown is one of the squad’s best ball-handlers.
Nobody scored in double figures for the Warriors, but six players scored at least five points.
JDHS took nearly twice as many shots — 47 to 24 — but Wasilla attempted 24 free throws to the Bears’ 14, and held a big 50-28 rebounding advantage.
Celeste Colegrove had 10 boards, Alexis lmoe seven and Jyla Dinkel six.
Taylor Larson, who scored a team- and game-high nine points for JDHS, had seven rebounds.
“Their reserves were actually much bigger than the two players they lost,” Knight said. “So they matched up well against us.”
Wasilla entered the tournament as the No. 1 seed after winning the Northern Lights Conference regular-season championship.
The Warriors and Bears split two meetings during the regular season. Winning the rubber match, coupled with the fact it was the Bears who beat them in the title game a year ago, made the win especially sweet for the Warriors.
“Our saying at the beginning of the year was, ‘We believe,’” Wasilla coach Jeannie Hebert-Truax said. “From the first day of practice we talked about the state championship, being here at this moment. The whole time, they practiced hard and they believed in it.”
It was difficult to envision this ending for the Bears, who lose eight seniors. JDHS beat Wasilla in the title game in 2010 and was poised for a repeat, cruising into the finals with a pair of wins by a combined 51 points.
The Bears have never won back-to-back state titles, something the players used as motivation.
“I want to say it’s more disappointing because we wanted to win,” Tarver said of hoisting consecutive trophies. “We worked really hard this season and I’m proud of where we are. I wouldn’t trade it for any other team.
“It just wasn’t our night.”