The term "hard fought" is an overused sports cliché, but it also happens to perfectly describe Thursday's Huna Totem Tribe-Juneau Hangar Green Team game.
In an exceedingly physical C Bracket contest, Huna beat Juneau in the 59th Annual Gold Medal Basketball Tournament winner's bracket play, 82-75, to advance to Saturday's championship contest. Huna will face the winner of tonight's Juneau Green-Kake LAB rematch at 7:30 p.m. in the losers' bracket semifinal.
Defending champion Huna is now in the exact spot it wants to be - watching and resting.
"Now we have a chance to recuperate," said Huna guard Louie White, who had 15 points and eight rebounds on Thursday. "We can kick back and watch Juneau and Kake beat up on each other."
Juneau may not have many punches left. The Green Team had lots of black and blue marks to show for their effort on Thursday. Huna didn't fare any better. The game featured more takedowns than most high school wrestling dual-meets.
"That's typical for us," White said of the two teams' rough play.
Agreed Juneau's Ethan Billings, "It actually wasn't too bad - I thought it would have been worse."
That's hard to imagine, without some manslaughter charges accompanying that level of play. The capacity crowd - mostly in favor of Huna - howled all night as the bodies tumbled and rolled over one another.
Despite the rough play, there were some sterling performances on both teams. Huna's Gregg Garcia turned in a sparkling 20-point, nine-rebound performance.
"He's smooth, real smooth," Juneau guard Mike Bavard said of Garcia.
Bavard was pretty smooth himself. He hit 4-of-6 from the field in the first half to keep Juneau close, and he finished the game with 19 points overall. Backcourt mates Billings (20 points, four rebounds) and Kevin Casperson (16 points, five rebounds) were also strong for Juneau.
The game was close all the way and was marked by suffocating defense on both ends. Huna held a narrow 42-37 lead at the half, despite hitting just 14 of their 38 field goal attempts - thanks in part to Juneau's equally dismal 13-of-38 performance.
"They're tough, they're all in real good shape," said Bavard of Huna's balanced and deep roster.
"They play real good team ball and they create matchup problems for us. We really could have done a better job of getting the ball inside and using our height advantage."
To be sure, Juneau had a height advantage, but Huna enjoyed a 50-47 advantage in rebounding nonetheless. On the occasion that a team did work the ball inside, the unlucky recipient was often double- and triple-teamed - and roughed up by the whole group of defenders. As a result, the teams often had to be content with firing up from around the perimeter.
That normally suits players like Huna's Showalter Martin quite well, but his legs, tired from all the pounding, allowed him to hit only four of his 15 three-point attempts. In the second half he started slashing to the hoop and the strong forward hit five of his last six shots to help vault Huna to the win. He finished with a game-high 27 points and a team-high 10 rebounds.
"We're starting to play like a team - good defense," Martin said of his team's effort. "We love the physical game."
That much was evident. What wasn't so obvious was the outcome of this one. Juneau trailed by four or five points for most of the second half. But the Green Team went on a three-minute scoring drought midway through the half - aided by Huna's slow-down tactics - and found themselves down 12 points with 2:30 left in the game.
Asked why Juneau allowed Huna to run so much time off the clock without pressing the ball, the Green's Casperson said, "You can wait them out for three minutes or you can chase them for three minutes ... chasing them makes you a lot more tired."
Cracked Casperson, "They spread the court and it showed our age."
Still, Juneau didn't quit. Casperson hit back-to-back threes, and a short jumper by Bavard cut Huna's lead to 75-72 with 1:20 left, but that's as close as they would come.
"We had our chances late, we just missed some easy shots." Billings said. "But they're tough, that's why they're the defending champs. These games are lots of fun ... the crowd yelling and all that stuff. We're ready for Kake, bring 'em on."
Kake LAB 96, Klukwan Southeast Warriors 76
Wayne Friday and Kip Howard scored 21 points each as Kake LAB knocked off the Klukwan Southeast Warriors in a losers' bracket semifinal game in the C Bracket.
Myron Martin added 17 points for Kake, while Willis Cavanaugh scored 16 and Lonnie Anderson had eight points. Kake led 48-30 at halftime.
Shawn Joslyn scored 24 points to lead the Klukwan Southeast Warriors, who were a late addition to the tournament. Dave Thomson added 18 points, while Al Tagaban and Chris Lavallee scored 13 points apiece.
Kake LAB will play the Juneau Hangar Green Team at 7:30 p.m. today in the losers' bracket final. The Klukwan Southeast Warriors were eliminated by the loss.