It took four tries, but Northwest Strategies of Anchorage finally beat Juneau's Marlintini's Arctic Lights when it mattered most - in the championship game of the Gold Medal Tournament's Classic A Bracket.
In a rematch of the 2002 A bracket finale, won by Marlintini's, Northwest Strategies rode a balanced attack on both ends of the floor and a standout individual performance from Greg Freeman to post a 95-80 win over the defending champions Saturday afternoon in the Juneau-Douglas High School gym.
Freeman came to play on Saturday. He pumped in a game-high 28 points, including a perfect 10-for-10 run from the free-throw line, and hauled down a team-high six rebounds, as the visitors made amends for two less-than-perfect outings earlier in the tournament and returned home with the winner's trophy.
"It's a relief," Freeman said, of breaking the dry spell against Marlintini's, which included an early-round loss in last year's tourney. "We knew if we played good team ball we could win."
Good team ball had eluded Anchorage in its first two games of the tournament. In a 102-91 semifinal loss to Juneau on Thursday and Friday's 113-102 win over Tacoma, Wash., both games were marked by periods of sloppy and impatient offense. The Anchroage players said they knew it would take a better effort to win a championship.
"We finally got in sync," Northwest Strategies coach Jerry Mackie said. "Overall, I was really pleased with our effort. We got in a rhythm and took care of the basketball."
In addition to careful and patient offense, Mackie said, a key to the win was defending Marlintini's hot-shooting Josh Lockhart, who lit up the Anchorage team for 40 points on Thursday. The unenviable job of guarding Lockhart fell to Freeman, and he proved himself up to the task, reducing Lockhart's chances and limiting his output to just 15 points.
"I thought Freeman did an awesome job of shutting down Lockhart," Mackie said.
Freeman, who was named the A bracket's most valuable player after the game, said guarding Lockhart was no easy assignment.
"He's a tough cover. I'm not going to stop him completely," Freeman said. "But we wanted to make him earn his points. That was big for us. We didn't want him to take the game over."
Early on, it looked like Lockhart and his teammates might do just that. Lockhart put up seven points in the first five and a half minutes of play and helped Marlintini's open up an eight-point lead by midway through the first half.
But turnovers and missed opportunities plagued the home team.
"We didn't play very smart" said Lockhart, who pulled down six rebounds in the game. "Offensively, we were out of sync. We didn't set screens for ourselves.
"Not to take anyway from them. They're a real talented team. And Freeman's a great player," he added. "He went off on us."
Indeed, the former University of Alaska Anchorage standout scored eight points in the final 3:25 of the first half, igniting a 14-7 run that gave Northwest Strategies a lead it would never relinquish. And Freeman's big dunk, coming off a steal that he raced the length of the court with three minutes into the second half provided early punctuation to the victory.
Jon Madison and Matt Carle each nailed three 3-pointers for Anchorage en route to 17 and 15 total points, respectively. Both players were named to the all-tournament team, while teammate Nelson Williams won the defensive player award.
Brice Searles netted 25 for Marlintini's, which got 12 points and 10 rebounds from Emile Sheppard. Sheppard, Lockhart and teammate Robert Casperson earned all-tournament team honors for Juneau.
The loss had extra sting for Marlintini's, which had dedicated the game to owner Jim Cashen, who died out of state Thursday night. Juneau players all wore Cashen's initials on their uniforms, and player-coach Ethan Billings, who scored two for his team, admitted to being emotionally drained.
"It affected me a lot," Billings said. "He was my business partner, my friend, my brother."
But Billings made no excuses for the loss and noted the rivalry that has developed between the two teams over two years of Gold Medal play.
Anchorage coach Mackie, a 24-year veteran of Gold Medal play, also commented on the quality of the competition. He's brought this same basic group of players to Gold Medal tournaments under three different names - Deep Three of Fairbanks in 2001 and United of Anchorage last year. While the team is from Anchorage, six players are former Juneau residents.
"It's a hell of a matchup," he said. "The last four games, either one of us could've won. Tonight was just our night."