The tears started falling along the Barrow bench even as the last 1 minute, 52 seconds of the Whalers' Class 3A state championship victory drained off the Sullivan Arena scoreboard Saturday afternoon.
With Barrow's eventual 58-31 victory a mere formality, coach Jordyn Danner pulled her starters, giving seniors Nicole Smith, Julia Kim, Jaleen Simmonds and Melissa Gerke occasion to be showered with applause from the Whalers' adoring fans.
On the bench, the seniors hugged and hugged and high-fived one another, and soon came tears of reward -- and redemption.
"This was our goal all season long,'' Smith said after she snatched 10 steals, furnished 12 points and served as the spearhead of a suffocating defense that imposed its will on the Huskies. "For our coach -- it's her first year. And especially for our seniors, after what happened last year.''
A year after Barrow missed the state tournament, where it would have been favored, because several players were suspended for drinking, the Whalers savored the success of a perfect season -- 26-0.
But the tears that fell as time ticked off the clock weren't the first the Whalers shed Saturday. The championship marked the last game together for the four senior starters, who have played together most of their lives.
"We all grew up together,'' Smith said. "The four seniors who started have been playing together since elementary school.''
Realizing the end was near played with their emotions.
"We cried 30 minutes before the game,'' Kim said. "We cried 10 minutes before the game.''
And they cried afterward.
"Amazing,'' Kim said. "It was the best season ever.''
As the Whalers celebrated, gathered for team pictures and received congratulations from family and friends, they pulled on white T-shirts manufactured ahead of time and indicative of their rank as prohibitive favorites to seize the school's first girls title since 2007.
The back of the T-shirts read "2011 State Champions'' and listed the roster and the coaching staff. The print on the front read: "Winning Isn't Everything But Around Here It's Tradition.''
In most seasons, a team as talented and fundamentally sharp as Kotzebue, which received seven points each from Christina Field and Danielle Fields, and a couple of 3-pointers from Colleen Snyder, would be a strong favorite to claim a state title. But Barrow's strong guard tandem of Smith and Kim, 6-foot-3 sophomore center Lynette Hepa, and forwards Gerke and Simmonds, are formidable and play a pressing, trapping defense that is relentless and remorseless.
Witness the 29 turnovers the Whalers forced and the 24 steals they collected in ringing up their fourth win over the Huskies this season. They also got 23 rebounds from Hepa, who delivered a game-high 14 points, and 12 points and eight rebounds from Gerke.
"Our 3-2 defense, it's like textbook defense,'' Kim said. "If you wanted to show how to play a 3-2, look at our team. Defense really sets the tone for us.''
Even if opponents break through the back-court pressing of Smith and Kim to enter the front-court with speed, Hepa, Gerke and Simmonds still present problems. Hepa furnished five blocks Saturday and Gerke blocked two shots, and Barrow's front line altered a slew of other Kotzebue shots.
"We're determined,'' Smith said. "We want the ball.''
Even with all that defensive work, though, Smith and Kim never looked remotely winded, likely because Danner puts them through intense conditioning in practices.
"We run soooo much,'' Kim said. "We even had one practice this year -- our coach thought we were getting cocky -- where we ran for two hours straight.
Just like Barrow's defense.
Sitka 45, Seward 42: Richelle Ramil scored a game-high 13 points and Sariah Ady added 10 points and a game-high 13 rebounds to lift the Wolves to victory in the third-place game.
Meg Berry led the Seahawks, who took fifth place, with 11 points and Tessa Adelmann added 10.
Anchorage Christian Schools 59, Craig 48: The Lions earned fourth place behind Lillian Crayton's game-high 17 points, as well as 12 points from Sarah Taylor and 10 from Dallas Dickerson.
The Panthers, who finished sixth, received 15 points from Grace Beckman and 13 from Melissa Castle.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
By DOYLE WOODY