ANCHORAGE - Once again, the Juneau-Douglas High School girls basketball team's journey proved to be far better than the destination.
For the second straight year, the Crimson Bears lost their first two Class 4A state tournament games for an early exit from the tourney.
Juneau fell to the unexpectedly strong outside shooting of the Soldotna Stars, 61-55, on Thursday to open state play at Anchorage's Sullivan Arena, then were overwhelmed by a freshman phenom this morning in a 49-35 loss to the Dimond Lynx.
Today's loss ends Juneau's season with a 17-7 record, and it was the last game for Juneau's senior standouts Danielle Larson and Amy Neussl.
"We're all disappointed with how we performed up here; it's always a bummer, a let-down to come up to state if you're not successful," Juneau coach Lesslie Knight said after this morning's game. "But bottom line, we need to remember we're one of the top eight teams in the state and we had an incredibly successful season in getting here."
In Thursday's game against Soldotna, Juneau overcame a first-half deficit, but in the second half SoHi built a mountain too high for the Crimson Bear girls to climb.
The Stars, playing in their first state tournament since winning the state title in 1993, found success both in the paint and beyond the arc. Juneau came into Thursday's game prepared to negate a strong Star post presence, but that left Soldotna's Jennifer Senette the opportunity to score a game-high 24 points, including four 3-pointers.
"Jennifer did a great job shooting tonight, and we did a great job breaking the press" defense of Juneau, said Soldotna center Rachel Besse, who - despite Juneau's focus on the post - scored 19 for the Stars, grabbed 14 rebounds and was named player of the game.
"We concentrated a lot on their posts, so that left a lot of room for their shooters to get open," Juneau's Kendri Cesar said.
Soldotna's shooters shot just under 50 percent from the field, while Juneau only sank about 35 percent of its attempts.
"We played a really, really good game," Juneau's Letasha McKoy said, "but they had good shot selection and most of theirs were going in."
Juneau was led by McKoy's 17 points, while Neussl added 14.
After Soldotna (25-2) went up by nine points, 19-10, with five minutes left in the second quarter, the Crimson Bears clawed back to gain the lead. Juneau went on an 8-0 run in the final three minutes of the half to claim a 22-21 lead at the intermission.
However, the Bears could not maintain the momentum in the second half as a refocused Stars squad outscored Juneau 21-8 in the third quarter. Juneau staged another rally in the final period, but could only narrow the gap to five as the Stars hit enough of their free throws to keep the win secure.
The Stars' focus now turns to the powerful Wasilla Warriors, who are the only team to beat Soldotna this season. Wasilla defeated Dimond on Thursday, 65-52, in its opening round game. In Thursday's other 4A girls games, Lathrop stunned three-time defending state champion East Anchorage, 55-40, while Chugiak rallied to beat Colony, 52-43.
Earlier today, Juneau's season came to an end as Dimond freshman Lillian Bullock scored 17 points to lead the Lynx to victory. Also contributing for Dimond were freshman twin posts Savannah (6-foot) and Shaina Afoa (6-foot-1), who were a major presence under the hoop.
"It was a lot harder to guard" Dimond now than in January, McKoy said, when Juneau swept a two-game series with the Lynx. None of the three freshmen played in that series.
"Even though they're not experienced," McKoy said of Dimond's freshmen, "they're really good, really strong."
"It was definitely a different team than we saw in January," Cesar said.
The score was tied at 18 at halftime; one first-half highlight for Juneau came when Mary Rehfeld canned a 3-pointer just after she entered the game in the second quarter.
"I thought it was a pretty good time to hit a three ... but when we really needed the shots they weren't falling," Rehfeld said.
That was in the second half, when the Lynx outscored the Crimson Bears 31-17 as Bullock scored 13 points while senior Jennifer Sandy and junior ZeeZee Young chipped in nine apiece over the final two quarters.
Neussl led Juneau with nine points, while Cesar and McKoy added seven apiece. McKoy, a junior, was named player of the game for Juneau for her efforts on both offense and defense.
"Tash has had a great ending to her season," Knight said. "We can't wait for her to light it up next year."
Dimond coach Jim Young was pleased with his freshman trio, who joined the varsity squad midway through the season after getting some game experience on the JV squad.
"They stepped it up huge for our team," he said.
Young, who coached against Juneau as much as anyone this season, also praised Knight's efforts in her first year at the helm of the Crimson Bears.
"For a first-year coach, she did a great job with that team," he said. "She fit the three years (of typical new-coach rebuilding) into her first year."
Andrew Krueger can be reached at email@example.com.
CLASS 4A STATE TOURNEY GIRLS
LYNX 49, CRIMSON BEARS 35
Friday's consolation game from Anchorage's Sullivan Arena
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS (35) - Alida Bus 1 0-0 2, Julie Heard 0 0-0 0, Kendri Cesar 3 0-0 7, Bianca Carpeneti 0 0-0 0, Heather Dillon 0 0-0 0, Mary Rehfeld 1 0-0 3, Amy Neussl 3 2-2 9, Jordan Johnston 0 0-0 0, Danielle Larson 1 3-8 5, Letasha McKoy 1 5-7 7, Sophia Smith 0 0-0 0, Ashley Larson 1 0-0 2. Totals 11 10-17 35.
DIMOND (49) - ZeeZee Young 4 2-2 11, Jennifer Sandy 3 4-4 11, Noelani Saena 0 0-0 0, Lillian Bullock 6 4-5 17, Andrea Stigall 0 0-0 0, Megan O'Connor 0 0-0 0, Felica Kroll 0 0-0 0, Savannah Afoa 0 0-0 0, Brittany Muscio 0 0-0 0, Shaina Afoa 1 2-3 4, Jessica Houston 0 0-0 0, Chantel Hernandez 3 0-0 6. Totals 17 12-14 49.
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS 4 18 8 25 - 55
DIMOND 6 12 11 20 - 49
3-point goals - Juneau-Douglas 3 (Cesar 1, Rehfeld 1, Neussl 1), Dimond 3 (Young 1, Sandy 1, Bullock 1). Fouled out - Juneau-Douglas 1 (D. Larson), Dimond 0. Technical fouls - None. Total fouls - Juneau-Douglas 15, Dimond 14.
STARS 61, CRIMSON BEARS 55
Thursday's first-round game from Anchorage's Sullivan Arena
SOLDOTNA (61) - Jennifer Senette 7 6-8 24, Erin Wolfe 0 1-2 1, Lauren Christiansen 0 0-0 0, Rachel Besse 8 2-3 19, Jenna Syverson 1 0-0 2, Hillary Zobeck 5 3-5 13, Amy Breakfield 1 0-0 2. Totals 22 12-18 61.
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS (55) - Alida Bus 3 0-0 6, Julie Heard 0 0-0 0, Kendri Cesar 0 2-2 2, Heather Dillon 2 0-0 4, Amy Neussl 5 0-0 14, Danielle Larson 5 0-0 10, Letasha McKoy 4 8-12 17, Sophia Smith 1 0-0 2, Ashley Larson 0 0-0 0. Totals 20 10-14 55.
SOLDOTNA 10 11 21 19 - 61
JUNEAU-DOUGLAS 4 18 8 25 - 55
3-point goals - Soldotna 5 (Senette 4, Besse 1), Juneau-Douglas 5 (Neussl 4, McKoy 1). Fouled out - Soldotna 0, Juneau-Douglas 1 (D. Larson). Technical fouls - None. Total fouls - Soldotna 12, Juneau-Douglas 17.