Wasilla led from start to finish, but its 55-40 win over Bartlett in the first round of the Class 4A girls state basketball tournament at the Sullivan Arena on Thursday wasn't as easy as the final score indicated.
After Wasilla led by as much as 16 points in the second quarter, the Warriors watched their lead fall to two points with 5:38 left in the game. Wasilla sophomore Kyla Dinkel came to the rescue when she scored six consecutive points and settled the Warriors down.
"That kind of spurred us on," said Wasilla senior Kelsey Cottle.
Dinkel hit two free throws with 4:59 remaining, and then converted two layups from the left side of the rim on the Warriors next two possessions. About a minute later, the 6-foot-5 Cottle made a pretty baby hook from the front of the rim, giving the Warriors a 50-40 lead with less than three minutes to go.
The win improved Wasilla's record to 24-2 and set up a rematch of last year's semifinal game against Dimond, one of the two teams to beat Wasilla this season and the same team the Warriors faced in the state semifinals last season.
Last season, the Warriors defeated Dimond in overtime and went on to lose to Juneau in the finals.
"I do not want that to happen again," said Cottle, who said she plans to make the most of her last chance to win a state title.
Cottle finished two blocks shy of a triple-double, totaling a team-high 18 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks.
"She can be a major dominating force," said Wasilla coach Jeannie Hebert-Truax, who said Cottle has leaned a lot in four years, but still has a lot of untapped potential.
Cottle was a definite force through most of Thursday's games. She said she would have liked to have made a few more of her shots from close range, but she was happy with her defense.
"I love defense," said Cottle. "I love blocking people."
With Cottle patrolling the paint, Wasilla's guards did a good job harassing the Bartlett ball handlers. Bartlett turned the ball over 17 times, compared to Wasilla's seven, and the Warriors made 12 steals.
Leisl Brown, who led the Warriors with four steals, scored all seven of her points in the first quarter, hitting a 3-pointer and twice converting steals into a lay ups, providing the bulk of an 11-0 Warriors run that opened the game.
Bartlett coach Stephen Stansbury said he feared the Golden Bears might be a little jittery, because none of his player had ever played in the state tournament before.
"I knew we might come out slow," he said. "I knew their nerves might get to them a little bit, and it did."
Stansbury said once his team started relaxing, it started playing much better. No player showed it more than senior guard Bobbi Britt. When she started knocking down jump shots, the rest of the team followed her lead.
Britt, who finished with a game-high 19 points, scored eight in the second quarter, and Tiara Turner buried a couple of big 3-pointers on her way to 11 points.
Britt narrowed the Warriors' lead to two points when she made a hard drive down the middle of the key in the fourth quarter. She pumped her fist as the shot fell in and the defender was whistled for a foul, then she drained a free throw.
Bartlett couldn't keep the momentum going, however, as Britt's free throw turned out to be the last point scored for the Golden Bears.
"If we had taken the lead, it might have been a little bit different," said Stansbury.
Dimond 50, West Valley 49: Keiahnna Engel's 26 points, 11 rebounds and four assists helped Dimond escape with a first-round win. The Lynx trailed 12-5 after scoring a single basket in the first quarter but clawed their way back into the game by shooting nearly 50 percent in the second half (13 of 27).
Jasmine Yarde led West Valley with 17 points, 10 rebounds and seven steals.
Juneau 60, South 22: Juneau raced to an 18-2 lead in the first quarter and never looked back in its romp over South, which only six scored baskets the entire game.
The Crimson Bears got contributions up and down their lineup and harassed the Wolverines into 33 turnovers in 32 minutes. Karli Brakes tallied 10 steals and seven assists, Sarah Tarver (14 points) and Taylor Larson (12) paced a balanced offense and 10 players collected rebounds in a dominating 52-32 effort on the boards.
Colony 53, Soldotna 33: Colony's Pherrari Brumbaugh hit three 3-pointers and finished with 13 points in the Knights' big win. Five other players scored at least five points in Colony's balanced attack, with Kaitlyn Klapperich dishing six assists. The Knights, who trailed by six points after one quarter, blasted Soldotna in the final three frames, including a 20-10 run in the second quarter.
Soldotna's Becca Satathite scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds, and Kaillee Skjold added eight points and nine rebounds.