Cook Inlet Academy's long, strange trip through the Class 1A girls basketball tournament, which began with a game played in two different gyms, ended Wednesday at Sullivan Arena with a fittingly bizarre 43-39 triple-overtime championship victory over conference rival Nikolaevsk.
Led by junior Nicole Moffis' 19 points, the Eagles claimed their first state title by outlasting Nikolaevsk in one of the weirder finales in memory, a game that featured one overtime period that ended with CIA thinking it had won the game and another that consisted of a single possession, a single shot and zero points.
"It's the best feeling," CIA senior Cara Davidson said. "Very satisfying. You feel like you did everything you possibly could."
The Eagles thought they did everything they could to win in the first overtime -- and in fact thought they had won when the buzzer sounded.
Down 39-38, Nikolaevsk missed a shot at the buzzer that seemed to end the game. But officials said CIA knocked the rebound out of bounds with four-tenths of a second left, giving Nikolaevsk new life and halting the CIA celebration just as it was starting.
"It was hard to keep that emotion in check," CIA senior guard Megan Bauder said. "I wanted to jump up and celebrate.
"We just had to flip the switch."
On the ensuing inbound play, Nikolaevsk freshman Kayla Stafford drew a shooting foul and, with all zeroes on the clock and no player on the court but her, sank the second of two free throws to tie the game 39-39 and force the second overtime.
"She's just beating herself up (over missing the first free throw)," Nikolaevsk coach Bea Klaich said.
"I'da done an airball on both if I was shooting," CIA coach Rustin Hitchcock said, praising Stafford's ability to get one shot to go down with so much at stake.
The second extra period was a demonstration of both masterful coaching and why high school basketball needs a shot clock.
CIA won the jump ball and gave the ball to Bauder, who camped near midcourt and held the ball for nearly two minutes before moving. Then she dribbled for another minute. Then the Eagles made a couple passes, all far from the basket. With 8.2 seconds left in the four-minute overtime, Hitchcock called timeout to set up a final play -- a miss by Davidson.
CIA did more of the same in the third overtime, although this time the Warriors applied some pressure. The danger in doing that, Klaich said, is fouling instead of forcing a turnover. "All those girls can shoot free throws," she said.
The clock was down to 27 seconds when Davidson found Darlene Bunts under the basket for a layup and the first points in nearly eight minutes of basketball. With 17.3 seconds left, CIA's Madison Orth sealed the game with a pair of free throws.
Hitchcock said the idea of holding the ball for entire OT periods came from assistant coach Justin Franchina, who played on CIA boys teams that used the tactic a decade or so ago.
"I had that in the back of my mind that if we got in an overtime game, that's what we wanted to do," Hitchcock said.
"We have two of the best point guards in the state, and they can run ball control and pass it back and forth."
Klaich called it "brilliant strategy," and said she remembers the CIA boys using it years ago.
"I should've been prepared for it," she said, vowing that she will be the next time.
CIA showed great discipline and ball control as it ran down the clock, Klaich said. Maybe Nikolaevsk should have done the same thing when it built a decent lead in the third quarter, "but our girls are young, and I felt they need to still keep attacking the rim," she said.
At any rate, she said, the rules need to change.
"I think high school basketball needs to adopt the 30-second shot clock," Klaich said, in a tone that did not suggest sour grapes. "I believe if there was a shot clock, we'd be state champions."
A team with no seniors, Nikolaevsk reached the championship game with a strong inside game featuring 6-foot-1 Nianiella Dorvall and 5-7 Sophia Kalugin, who plays taller and is incredibly strong. Along with 5-8 freshman Serafima Kalugin, who had a game-high nine rebounds before fouling out, they gave the Warriors a 37-30 rebounding advantage and a daunting inside presence. Dorvall finished with a team-high 16 points, all of them in the paint.
CIA overcame that with a full-court press that was effective the whole game, solid ball-handling and poise. The Eagles had been here before -- they lost to Newhalen in the Class 2A state championship game last season.
Even so, CIA did not lead until Moffis drained two free throws for a 39-38 lead with 12.2 second left in the first overtime.
The Eagles were 1-2 against Nikolaevsk coming into the game, a record that included a 28-27 loss in the conference championship game, a loss that made CIA the No. 2 seed from the region.
CIA opened with a first-round game Saturday against Buckland. The game started at West High, but at halftime the teams had to travel crosstown and finish the game at South High -- the sprinkler system went off at West and water leaked onto the gym floor.
The win over Buckland put the Eagles in a Monday game against top-ranked Klawock, and they pulled off the upset. The next day, they beat Newhalen, the defending 1A champions, to earn another shot at Nikolaevsk.