THE MIGHTY 'B' BRACKET
Forgive the two-time defending Mighty B Bracket champion Haines Merchants if they weren't too upset about dropping into the losers' bracket during Gold Medal Basketball Tournament play earlier this week at Juneau-Douglas High School.
The Merchants weren't upset because they've been down this path before. In both of its title runs, Haines lost a game early in the tournament then fought back through the losers' bracket. The Merchants started a similar trip this year as they eliminated Yakutat ANB 91-82 in a Tuesday afternoon game that saw eight lead changes and two ties over the final eight minutes of play. In Tuesday afternoon's other losers' bracket game, Angoon ANB eliminated Juneau Frontier Realty with an 85-74 victory.
"Sometimes, knowing your back's against the wall, sometimes people play better that way," said Haines' Jason Shull, who scored 14 of his 17 points in the second half. "The point is to win the last game."
"That's kind of what we're figuring, that we'll actually get better as the tournament goes along," Andrew Friske said after leading Haines with 33 points. "There are a lot of us who come up here from school to play in Gold Medal, and with each game we get better."
Friske is a recent graduate of Carroll College in Montana, while Shull just graduated from Lewis-Clark State in Idaho. But the Merchants are also missing two big keys to their title runs because of school commitments. Brothers Josh and Link Fannon couldn't get away from their classroom obligations -- Josh is in law school and Link attends a college in Oregon -- and that means the Merchants have a new look this year.
"It's such a different team," said Haines' Stuart DeWitt, who took time away from his classes at Adams State College in Colorado to score 12 points Tuesday. "If we had the same team, we might not be in the losers' bracket. We've got three or four new guys, but we miss the Fannon brothers. That's 40 points a game right there. We're not near as good with our outside shooting, and we're not as good one-on-one as we were with them. But we played a lot better in this game."
"We have to make a couple of extra passes now to find the open man," Friske said. "We're starting to get our chemistry going. We pay so much for our tickets up here, we have to get our money's worth. In the losers' bracket we get to play eight or six games instead of the four you get in the winners' bracket."
Haines won its opener 80-65 over Juneau Frontier Realty in a physical game Sunday that left three Haines players with black eyes. But Monday, Haines lost to 1999 runner-up Hoonah 96-78 to fall into the losers' bracket. Tuesday's game was the third of the tournament for Haines, which plays next at 8:30 p.m. on Thursday against the winner of tonight's 8:30 p.m. Angoon-Sitka game.
"It took us a couple of games to get going, but we're getting better," Shull said.
In Tuesday's game, Haines and Yakutat were tied 40-40 at halftime as Friske scored 22 points for Haines and Jimmi Jensen had 11 of his team-high 23 for Yakutat. Haines took an early lead in the second half, stretching the advantage to nine points twice in the early going of the period.
But Yakutat rallied and finally took its first lead of the second half on a bucket by Eric Anderson with 7 minutes, 58 seconds left to play. Over the next five minutes the lead changed hands seven more times, with Haines finally breaking an 80-80 tie with 2:38 left on a free throw by DeWitt. Shull scored the next six points to make it 87-80 and Yakutat had nothing left of a comeback.
"We lacked a big guy in the middle and we had some inconsistency and bad passes," Jensen said. "We can only get better. Haines is a good team, the defending champions. We've got a lot of younger players in starting roles, while most of these teams -- Haines, Hoonah, Kake -- have veteran starters. That's why I think we can only get better. We just had some foul trouble, lack of depth on our bench and lack of size today."
Besides the 23 points from Jensen, Yakutat also picked up 15 points from Carl Bogren, 12 from Ralph Johnson, 11 from Anderson and 10 from Damien Long.
Only one other Haines player besides Friske, Shull and DeWitt reached double-figure scoring, David Buss with 11 points.
Angoon 85, Juneau 74
Frank Jack scored 20 points and Guy Hunter added 19 as Angoon ANB eliminated Juneau Frontier Realty in a losers' bracket game Tuesday afternoon.
DeAndre King scored 12 points for Angoon and Levi Johnson added 11, while Phil Datwiler added eight points.
Dave Thompson scored 15 points to lead Juneau, which was a last-minute replacement in the tournament for the Metlakatla Sons of Taquan, which lost several team members to a commercial herring opening. Frank Coronell and Lonnie Anderson both scored 12 points for Juneau, while Rory Darling and Sean Riley each scored 10 points and Mike Abbott had eight, including the first six points of the game.
Even though Juneau was eliminated by the loss, the team members were happy with their performance. Many of them hadn't played since the Ordway League Division III tournament ended in early February, and Juneau didn't find out until 8 a.m. on Sunday it was even in the tournament. Juneau's first game was at 10 p.m. Sunday night against the Haines Merchants.
"I think I'm the youngest one on the team at 35," Anderson said. "This is a division for guys in their 20s. The kids are all young and quick."
"I think our average age is 41," Thompson said. "It would have been nice to have more warning, but I can understand why Metlakatla pulled out. You've got to go when the fish go. Now we've got to find the Advil, the ibuprofen."
Angoon coach Andy Lee said he was impressed with Juneau, which trailed most of the game but never really slipped out of striking distance of Angoon. Even though the Juneau players talked about how much older they were than Angoon, which has four players within two years of high school ball, Lee said the top teams in each division of the Ordway League all have older players. He said the older teams compensate for their lack of speed by playing smarter basketball and knowing their limits.
"A lot of people are under the misconception that the first thing to go when you get older is the legs," Lee said. "It's not. The first thing to go is the ego. When these guys were all younger and had jump shots they'd probably be running down the court and popping away. But now they just want to win. They're patient and they're willing to work it inside to the big guy (Abbott). He only had eight points, but they were the first eight and they set the tone for the game. It was good for my young guys to play against a team like this."
"It was just an honor for the old men to be playing," Riley said.
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.