After losing the big cog in its offense to a pro contract, Huna ANB turned to its defense to earn a return trip to the B Bracket championship game in the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament.
Huna ANB also gained a small measure of revenge with its 89-84 victory over the defending champion Haines Merchants in Thursday night's winners' bracket game at Juneau-Douglas High School.
Huna will play in Saturday night's 8 p.m. championship game against the winner of tonight's 9 p.m. losers' bracket final between Haines and Kake Tlingit Heat. Kake beat the Metlakatla Merchants 90-84 in Thursday's losers' bracket game.
"There's still work to be done," Huna's Andy Gray said.
As usual, the two teams matched up well with each other and defense is what turned the game in Huna's favor. Without Nate Strong dropping 50-plus points and 20-plus rebounds on opposing teams, Huna restructured its gameplan.
"It was back to defense," Huna's Russell Dick said. "That's where it all starts."
"Nate was awesome and we were sorry to lose him," Gray said. "We played as a team and we were rotating our players better. We realized we had to come together. We picked up some new guys and they've made a difference."
Huna added David Lindoff to pick up some rebounding, while Lucas Johnson and former Juneau-Douglas High School player James Wilson added depth at guard. All three of them have made big contributions this tournament. Travis Dybdahl, who typically played second fiddle to Strong on offense, has picked up his scoring and led Huna with 25 points Thursday (he had 46 on Monday).
Haines provides a tough matchup for most teams, with 6-foot-10 center Ben Egolf in the middle and a bevy of 3-point shooters. Egolf won the tournament MVP award last year, and in Sunday's game Haines made 18 3-pointers in a 131-115 exhibition game victory over Marlintini's Arctic Lights of Juneau, an A Bracket team. But Huna's added players kept Haines' weapons in check.
"That was awesome the way some of our new guys stepped up," Dybdahl said. "David Lindoff did a great job against Ben. David's from Hoonah, but he played for up north and learned well. We've played them (the Merchants) so many times, we know they pop the 3 and we need to defend it."
"I had to try and fit in, at first, but now that we're getting into the big games, I had to take a few more shots," said Wilson, who scored 24 points Thursday. "I'm not like Nate as a scorer, I'm more of a distributor. I'm a different player than he was."
David Lindoff added 12 points for Huna, while Albert Hinchman had eight and Kamal Lindoff scored seven.
"We were rotating everyone in and we got everyone involved," Johnson said. "For us, it's a group of 10."
Egolf scored 22 points to lead Haines, while Andrew Friske added 17, Brian Friske scored 16 and Stuart DeWitt added 11.
"We didn't play hard defense, that was what was key," Haines' Andrew Friske said. "Our intensity wasn't there. I thought we were ready to play, but we were slow. We made their defense look good."
Haines has won four of the past five B Bracket titles (Huna won the other one two years ago), but the Merchants won all of those after coming back through the losers' bracket. When they stayed in the winners' bracket, the Merchants didn't win the title.
Last year, Haines claimed a thrilling 99-94 double-overtime victory over Huna in the championship game after losing to Huna 110-105 in the first round. This time, the two teams stayed in the winners' bracket after both won their first two games in similar manner - winning easily on Sunday and being taken to overtime (or double-overtime in Huna's case) before winning on Monday.
The Huna players said they enjoyed the extra days off, but the Haines players feel the time off in the middle of the tournament can be a curse.
"We're not used to having two days off," said Andrew Friske, who was among at least three players to have gone to the barber since Haines' game on Monday. "Our intensity wasn't there."
"We were a little sloppy and we didn't feel like we were on offense," teammate Brian Elliott said. "They wanted it more and we didn't play hungry enough."
Now Huna gets a well-deserved day off, while Haines plays Kake today.
"Everybody was hurting so the day off will help us," Johnson said.
Kake Tlingit Heat 90, Metlakatla Merchants 84
Rudy Bean scored 34 points as Kake Tlingit Heat eliminated the Metlakatla Merchants in Thursday's losers' bracket game.
Bean hit five 3-pointers, and Kake picked up some extra depth to counteract Metlakatla's height advantage with the late arrival to the tournament of Aaron Loges. The score was tied 44-44 at halftime, but Kake used strong defense and a quick transition game to build a double-digit lead that lasted until the game's last minute.
"They were a difficult challenge for us," Bean said. "They've got athletic big men and Dustin (Booth) is pretty good. With Aaron coming in we were able to get a good rotation of big men. When we had to sub, we stayed big."
Kake's starting center, Mike Smith, scored 10 points, while forward Brandon Jackson also scored 10. David Watkins added nine points and Kake had seven players score at least six points in the game.
Metlakatla's big trio of 6-4 forward Dustin Booth, 6-foot-8 center Trevan Walker and 6-5 forward Apollo Marsden combined for 60 of the Merchants' 84 points. Booth scored 27 to lead the Merchants, though he missed a dunk in the game's last minute. Walker had 23 points and Marsden added 10. Smith, at 6-4, was Kake's tallest player.
"Our defense is really coming through for us, a lot more than in the past," Smith said. "Our free throws came through at the end. We're looking forward to more games."
"It (playing everyday in the losers' bracket) definitely keeps us sharp, Haines has had a four-day break," Jackson said, referring to Kake's 92-91 overtime loss to the defending champion Haines Merchants on Monday. "It was a tough loss, but we get more games this way. The only way we could counteract their height was by running. We wanted to get them tired. Having a new big guy helped, because that gave Mike a break."