Haines' Big Ben overshadowed Huna's Strong man, leading the Haines Merchants to their fourth title in five years in the Mighty B Bracket of the Gold Medal Basketball Tournament.
In a passionate game watched by an overflow crowd at Juneau-Douglas High School, Ben Egolf made the game-saving steal with 7.8 seconds left in double overtime to lead the Merchants to a 99-94 victory over defending champion Huna ANB on Saturday night.
Egolf, a 6-foot-10 center playing in just his second Gold Medal, finished the game with 39 points, 13 rebounds, four blocked shots, two assists and one huge steal to lead Haines to the title. Egolf won the bracket's MVP award for his efforts. After making his steal, Egolf passed the ball to Jesse McGraw who scored a layup as time ran out to punctuate the Haines victory.
His performance overshadowed that of Huna's Nate Strong, who scored 49 points, grabbed 16 rebounds, had two assists and made two steals. Strong averaged 45 points for Huna's four games in the tournament, including another 49-point, 22-rebound performance last Sunday when Huna beat Haines 110-105 in the opening round. Haines was able to make its way back through the losers' bracket to win the title - the same route the Merchants have taken to all four of their championships.
"I was just lucky," Egolf said of his steal of a pass by Huna's Albert Hinchman. "I just figured they'd try to get it to Nate. We go 10 deep, everyone can put it in the basket. In double-overtime, especially, having 10 guys who can step up is big."
"They got a lot of good players, it's always fun to play them," Strong said.
Strong dominated things for Huna in the first half, scoring his team's first 15 points while Haines had seven different players score points to take a 22-15 lead. Once his teammates started scoring, Huna went on a 12-2 run.
Strong finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds in the first half as Huna took a 42-38 lead into the intermission, while teammate Travis Dybdahl scored 12 points and grabbed four rebounds. Egolf scored 11 points and grabbed five rebounds for the first half to lead Haines, while Andrew Friske had 10 points and seven rebounds.
In the second half, the teams swapped leads seven times and had two ties as the crowd tried to outchant each other - "Hoo-nah! Hoo-nah!" coming from one side of the gym, only to be countered by cries of "Go Haines! Go Haines!" on the other.
Stuart DeWitt put Haines up 82-77 with a pair of free throws with 2:20 left in regulation, with Strong scoring on a put-back with 2:02 left. Egolf scored in the paint to make it 84-79 with 1:44 to go, but Strong was fouled shooting a 3-pointer and couldn't convert the four-point play with 49.4 seconds left and Haines led 84-82.
With 17.5 seconds left, Strong passed the ball to Dybdahl who hit a 17-footer to tie the score. McGraw turned the ball over with 17.0 seconds left, but redeemed himself by grabbing a rebound of a missed 3-pointer by Dybdahl with 0.5 seconds to play, sending the game to overtime.
In the first overtime, Huna led 89-86 with 1:53 left when Egolf was fouled and made two free throws. With 1:07 left, Friske was fouled making a layup but missed his free throw as Haines took a 90-89 lead. Dybdahl was fouled with 47.8 seconds left, making the first free throw to tie the game but missing the second as the game went to another overtime.
In the second overtime, Friske made a pair of free throws and Egolf followed with a bucket to make it 94-90 with 2:16 left. McGraw made two free throws with 1:48 left to make it 96-90 Haines, but Hinchman hit a pair of free throws with 1:27 left to bring Huna within four points. Anthony Lindoff scored with 49.6 seconds left to make it 96-94 Haines.
DeWitt had a chance to make it a two-possession game, but missed two free throws with 19.4 seconds left. Friske was fouled with 10.0 seconds left and missed his first shot, then made his second to make it 97-94. Huna had one last chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer, but Egolf stole Hinchman's pass and McGraw scored the game-clincher.
"With Andrew and Stuart, you couldn't ask for better shooters at the line," Egolf said.
"This is an awesome feeling," McGraw said. "Ben Egolf helps a lot. He lets us slow things down and run an offense."
Friske scored 19 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to support Egolf's performance, with McGraw adding 11 points and nine rebounds. Jason Shull scored nine points, Josh Fannon had eight and DeWitt scored seven for the Merchants.
"This feels good, like the first time again," Friske said. "When you come back in double-overtime and win it, it's a pretty good feeling. Our bench helped us keep the defensive intensity and it shows we can play together as a team."
Dybdahl scored 26 points and grabbed six rebounds for Huna, while Hinchman scored eight points.
"They went through the losers' bracket again and got their chemistry going," Dybdahl said. "They've got a deep team. We're not as deep as them, but we've got some special players like Nate. We play two different styles, like the Kings and the Lakers."
"They have great shooters and they live and die with that dribble-penetration," Strong said. "Someone's always got to lose in a game like this."
These two teams are no stranger to the Mighty B Bracket championship games, as both have made regular appearances in recent years. Haines has beaten Huna three times in the past five years in the championship game, with each victory coming after an early tournament loss.
Haines has been in four of the last five title games, missing last year after winning three straight titles from 1999 to 2001. Huna has been in six of the seven championship games since 1997, missing in 2000 when Nate Strong was playing college basketball for Montana State-Billings and not eligible to play in Gold Medal because he was on the roster at an NCAA school (players from NAIA schools are eligible).
Strong later transferred to Biola University, an NAIA school, for his final two years of eligibility and he was a second-team NAIA all-American last year as a senior. Strong grew up in Tenakee Springs but wasn't able to play high school basketball because there weren't enough players. He has been pursuing a roster spot with a couple of European professional teams. If he signs, he won't be eligible for Gold Medal so this might have been his last appearance.
"If I go overseas, it will be," Strong said when asked if this is his last Gold Medal. "I've had a couple offers, but I won't know for sure until their seasons are over in April."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.