The Haines Merchants weren't shooting very well at the start of their losers' bracket final game Friday night against Juneau's Reliable Transfer, so they turned on their defense.
The Merchants made three steals and forced four other turnovers to key a 12-point run that gave them a lead they never relinquished, as Haines went on to claim a 79-68 victory and a spot in tonight's 8 p.m. Mighty B Bracket championship game against defending champion Huna ANB.
"Good defense always turns into good offense," Haines' Jason Shull said. "We'd do anything to get to play for the championship."
"We came out in a 3-2 (zone defense) and got a bunch of steals," Haines' Ben Egolf added.
Haines trailed 6-4 after the game's first three minutes, but the 12-0 run put the Merchants up 16-6 with just under 11 minutes left in the half. The closest Reliable came after that was seven points early in the second half.
"Their guards are quick," Reliable's Craig Kahklen said. "We just had a little trouble passing."
"We passed poorly," Reliable's Andy Lee added. "I had four turnovers myself. We played even with them after that. Unforced errors is what got us the last two nights."
The Friske brothers - Andrew and Brian - scored 17 points each to lead Haines, while Egolf added 13 points and Jesse McGraw had nine. All 10 players on the Haines roster scored at least two points - the third straight game that's happened.
Reliable, which has an average age of 41, was led by Lee's 20 points. Kahklen added 14 points and Phil Paramore scored 11.
"They're all able to put the ball in the basket," Kahklen said of Haines. "We've had mismatches in every game this tournament. All they've got on us is speed, quickness, jumping, endurance and youth. We knew we couldn't run with them, but it was hard to slow them down, though."
"We got beat by the two best teams out there," Lee said (Reliable lost 89-62 to Huna on Thursday night).
Haines had a 36-23 lead at halftime, and built a 20-point margin, 63-43, midway through the second half. Reliable went on a 9-2 run to close the margin to nine points with two minutes to go, but Haines was able to counter the rest of the game to preserve the victory.
"Those guys are real experienced," Egolf said.
"Anyone can come out and shoot their way back in," Brian Friske said. "We knew we had a lot of energy (early in the game) and we were able to make 'em make turnovers."
With the victory, Haines returns to the championship game for the fourth time in five years. Haines won three championships from 1999 to 2001, but last year Klawock-Prince of Wales eliminated the Merchants before the title game.
"We wanted revenge after last year," Brian Friske said. "We'll be ready to play tomorrow."
"We have something to prove," Egolf said.
Haines will play a familiar opponent in tonight's championship game, as Haines beat Huna for two of its three titles. Huna has been in the championship game every year since 1997, except 2000. Huna beat Haines 110-105 in Sunday's opening round, sending the Merchants through the losers' bracket. In Sunday's game, Huna led by 28 early in the second half but Haines came back to tie the score before Huna pulled out the victory in the final minutes.
"They scored a lot in the first half, but we've got our defensive chemistry down now," Shull said of Huna. "We've had a few days to get loose and get our chemistry down."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.