The village of Kake has suffered several big losses this year - including a boating accident that claimed the lives of a prominent teacher, his son and the son of another prominent teaching couple, and the ongoing cancer battle of another community leader.
On Saturday, the Kake Tlingit Heat finally gave the village something to celebrate.
Making their first appearance in the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament's B Bracket final since they won the title in 1998, the Tlingit Heat claimed another championship with an 86-77 overtime victory over perennial runner-up Huna ANB. Huna has been in all but one championship game since 1997, and has only won one title, in 2002.
"This means we celebrate for the rest of the year," said Kake's Rudy Bean, who was named the B Bracket's MVP. "This has been a long time coming. Our community has been through so much the last year and it's nice to bring something like this back home."
"This is huge. This is for the Mills family and the Davies family, and this is for Sam Jackson. This is for him," Kake's David Watkins said.
In January, a boating accident claimed the lives of Rick Mills, a teacher and wrestling coach at Kake High School; his son David, a high school freshman; and Gery Davies, the son of two longtime teachers at the school. That same month Sam Jackson, who was a Gold Medal Hall of Fame inductee on Saturday, was diagnosed with throat cancer.
"The community deserves it, we had to do it," said all-tournament team selection Mike Smith, who added that he also lost a cousin this year.
"This will help get the community through what's happened this last year," Bean said.
Kake struggled early, even though many of the players said they didn't feel they had any extra jitters because it was the Tlingit Heat's first trip to the title game in six years.
"We just had to settle into our game, and it took longer than normal," Bean said. "We give all the credit to Huna. They played tough."
Kake was down 27-15, but rallied to lead 31-27 before Anthony Lindoff's 3-pointer ended the 16-0 run. Huna responded to Kake's run and took a 44-37 halftime lead.
After Kake closed to 44-39 to open the second half, Huna picked up three straight 3-pointers - by James Wilson, Travis Dybdahl and Lucas Johnson - to take a 53-39 lead. But Kake started slowly chipping back into the game.
"We knew we could climb back," Kake's Lloyd Davis said.
"We all calmed down, then Rudy went on a tear and Mike came up big," Watkins said. "Everybody stepped up."
It was still 58-50 when Huna scoring leader Travis Dybdahl picked up his fourth foul, forcing him to the bench. Huna still led by eight when Dybdahl returned, but Kake continued to close the gap. Finally, with the score 73-72 Huna and 2 minutes, 12 seconds left, Dybdahl was called for a charge and fouled out of the game. Smith scored with 45.7 seconds left to tie the game at 74-74, and that was the score at the end of regulation.
"We were down, but we stepped up our defense," Kake's Aaron Loges said. "We came together. There's always jitters in a big game, but we pulled together. Lloyd made a nice play (to draw the charge by Dybdahl) and Mike was big. Losing Travis was huge, that helped us a lot."
In the overtime period, Bean hit two free throws and David Watkins hit four more, followed by a bucket by Loges, and the game was essentially over. James Wilson hit a long 3-pointer to bring Huna within five, 82-77, with 32.3 seconds left. But Kake's Lloyd Davis and Loges both scored to put the icing on the victory.
"This Kake is done, you can get out the frosting now," Smith said, adding that playing every day in the losers' bracket helped the Tlingit Heat gel their offense.
"It was all heart in the end," Davis said. "It could have gone either way.
Bean scored 23 points to lead the Tlingit Heat, while Smith added 17 and Watkins scored 15. Loges and Davis added 10 each, while Nick Davis chipped in nine.
Huna was led by Dybdahl's 24 points, while Wilson added 21 points and Gold Medal rookie David Lindoff scored 13.
"They had a couple of calls that went their way, and in a close game they make a big difference," Huna's Russell Dick said. "They kept the run going. We'll come back and try again."
"It was a good game," Lindoff said. "Losing Travis was a big thing, but we just couldn't make our shots. Now I've got one under my belt. I'm coming back and I'll be stronger next year."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.