The Haines Merchants have been down this road before.
When Haines won three straight championships in the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament's Mighty B Bracket from 1999 to 2001, the Merchants lost a game early in the tournament and then had to rally their way back through the losers' bracket to win the title.
Haines started another trip through the losers' bracket late Tuesday night with a 118-81 victory over the Klukwan Young Guns. The Merchants are hoping this trip through the back side of the tournament leads to another title.
"It's the same old road, so hopefully this is a good sign," Andrew Friske said after leading Haines with 22 points. "We always lost our first or second game of the tournament, then we'd gain momentum as we went through the losers' bracket. This year there are some great teams in the losers' bracket."
In some ways, an early loss by Haines is almost by design, even though the Merchant players will deny they ever want to lose.
Since some of the players don't live in Haines anymore - some are attending college and others moved to find work - the Merchants have been able to take advantage of the extra games teams get in the losers' bracket to rebuild their chemistry. If they win early, the Merchants only get to play four games if they reach the championship. If they lose, the Merchants can play as many as six games in the tournament.
"It doesn't matter if you lose (a game)," Jason Shull said after scoring nine points for Haines. "The only thing that's important is that you win that last one."
Haines lost its opener late Sunday night to the defending champion Huna ANB team, falling behind by 25 points early in the second half, then rallying to tie the score before losing 110-105 in the game's final seconds.
That sent the Merchants into Tuesday's late night game against Klukwan, which was a late addition to the tournament when Metlakatla couldn't raise enough money to send its team. The Young Guns, who lost 87-71 to Yakutat ANB on Sunday, didn't find out they were in the tournament until two days before it started.
Even though Klukwan was new to the tournament, the Young Guns weren't new to the Merchants since Klukwan and Haines are just 15 miles apart. Many of the players from both teams went to high school together, or were coached by players from the other team as they were growing up.
"We played them twice earlier this year (in a tournament in Haines), and we play those guys all through the year in open gyms," Haines' Aaron Nash said.
"They're kind of the freshmen of the tournament," Friske said. "Half of our guys used to teach these guys in basketball camps."
Haines schooled Klukwan early in Tuesday's game, hitting four 3-pointers in the game's first five minutes as the Merchants jumped out to a 20-3 lead. Once the Merchants had a comfortable lead they could pound the ball inside to 6-foot-10 center Ben Egolf, who was at least six inches taller than any of the Klukwan players. And, even though most of the Haines players have been playing in Gold Medal for several years now, the Merchants are still young enough that they can outrun most of the teams in the B Bracket.
Haines built a 62-36 lead by halftime and maintained a 20- to 30-point margin the rest of the game.
"Knowing their style of play doesn't mean we can stop them," Klukwan's Larry Sweet Jr. said. "If we're going to lose, we're glad to lose to that team. Now we'll watch Haines and the other Klukwan team (the Klukwan Chilkats of the Legendary C Bracket). It was all fun and games. Me and James (Wilson) are the only ones who have been in Gold Medal before, the other guys are all rookies. We were hoping if we played well enough we might be invited back. We'd be a lot better if we had more than two days notice."
Brian Friske said Haines jumped out early because it learned a lesson from its loss to Huna on Sunday.
"After that first game, we wanted to get an early lead," he said. "It's always best if we're up from the get-go."
"We were going to shoot anything that was open," Nash said.
Wilson said Klukwan pressed a little too much at the start of the game, which allowed Haines to jump out on top.
"It just didn't work out," Wilson said after leading Klukwan with 22 points. "We wanted to get out to a quick start, and I think we tried to do too much. About half our guys have never been here before, so they might have had a few jitters."
Andrew Friske led seven Haines players in double-figure scoring with 22 points. Josh Fannon added 18 points for the Merchants, Brian Friske scored 16, Stuart DeWitt and Egolf had 12 each, Nash scored 11 and Jesse McGraw chipped in 10 points.
Wilson led Klukwan with 22 points before fouling out with more than five minutes to play. Kevin Thompson scored 17 points and Billy Dushkin added 10.
Haines has another red-eye game late tonight, as the Merchants take on Kake Tlingit Heat at 9:30 p.m. in losers' bracket action. In the other game today, defending B Bracket runner-up Klawock-Prince of Wales takes on Yakutat ANB at 2:30 p.m. Klawock eliminated Angoon ANB 102-98 in losers' bracket action on Tuesday afternoon.
Klawock-Prince of Wales 102, Angoon ANB 98
Klawock-Prince of Wales made 17 of 20 free throws down the stretch with no field goals as it eliminated Angoon ANB in losers' bracket action on Tuesday. David Nix hit the four game-clinchers in the last minute of play for Klawock's final margin.
Devin Edenshaw scored 26 points to lead defending B Bracket runner-up Klawock, while T. J. Young scored 22, Bill Yockey added 20 and Doug Edenshaw had 15 points.
Guy Hunter led Angoon with 24 points, while Curtis Lane added 15 points, David Johnson scored 13, Frank Lane Jr. chipped in 12 and Jason Frank scored 10.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.