Anchorage — Saturday’s battle for third place in the Great Northwest Athletic Conference was just that — a battle.
The UAA and UAF men’s basketball teams put on a thrilling show at a packed Wells Fargo Sports Complex, with UAA squeaking out a 71-69 win over in-state rival UAF.
The crowd unleashed deafening cheers throughout a game UAA led for much of the night, but UAA’s winning points came amid silence as the Seawolves made four free throws in the final minute to overcome a two-point deficit.
The Seawolves (16-6, 9-5 GNAC) and Nanooks (13-9, 8-6) came into the game tied for the league’s third spot, but now UAA sits alone in third and has clinched a spot in next month’s GNAC tournament.
The win was the 15th straight in the series for UAA and the 10th straight at home, but the raucous atmosphere was one suited to an intense rivalry.
UAA sophomore Teancum Stafford, who made three of the team’s last four free throws and led UAA with 18 points, said the spirited fans made the game fun.
“It feels like you’re part of something bigger,” he said.
Stafford was fouled on a 3-point shot with 48.9 second left and UAA down 69-67. His first free throw danced on the rim before falling in, but the next two swished through cleanly to give UAA a 70-69 lead.
“The third one was easier than the first one,” Stafford said. “I was nervous. It was really fun to be able to deliver.”
The 6-foot-5 Stafford ended UAF’s next possession when he leaped high to secure a rebound with 16 seconds left. UAA’s Jalen Little was fouled shortly after and made the first of two free throws for the game’s final point.
Kyle Fossman and Abebe Demissie each pumped in 16 points and Liam Gibcus finished with 10 for UAA. The Seawolves were outrebounded and outshot, but they made 10 more free throws than UAF. They made 23 of 34 to UAF’s 13 of 17.
Ronnie Baker led the Nanooks with 20 points, Sergej Pucar added 12 and Zach Ngawaka hit for 11.
The 6-foot-11 Pucar was easily the biggest player on the floor, but that didn’t stop him from knocking down some long-range shots. He drilled a 3-pointer early in the second half to tie the score at 32-32. His second trey gave the Nanooks a 64-63 lead with 2:56 to play.
UAF was still ahead when UAA’s Christian Leckband ignited the crown with an NBA-range 3-pointer to put the Seawolves back up 67-66.
Pucar answered with an old-fashioned 3-point play, bulling his way through Gibcus to score in the post and draw a foul. His subsequent free throw put UAF up 69-67, setting the stage for Stafford’s free throws on UAA’s next possession.
“I thought we showed some real fortitude at the end,” UAA coach Rusty Osborne said. “We were able to defend on our last few possessions.”
UAA’s goals go beyond qualifying for the GNAC tournament, Osborne said, and the Seawolves are looking forward to a strong finish to the season.
“There weren’t a lot of high expectations for this group,” Osborne said. “Here we are, we’re sitting 16-6 and in third place in one of the toughest leagues in the country. We’re right on the cusp of doing some very good things.”
UAA will host the GNAC’s first-place and last-place teams this week. It plays last-place Simon Fraser on Thursday and first-place Western Washington on Saturday. Western Washington won its 30th straight game Saturday against Western Oregon.
Reach Jeremy Peters at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335.