Air balls. Unforced turnovers. Shots that clanked off the rim. Passes that ricocheted off hands and out of bounds. Field-goal attempts that teased the net, but rimmed in and out.
As starts go, the Newhalen girls basketball team endured a rough one Wednesday afternoon. The Malamutes committed eight turnovers, missed their first nine shots before they finally registered a point with just 49 seconds left in the first quarter.
"It was,'' said Newhalen coach Ed Lester, smiling and searching for the precise adjective, "horrible.''
Lester and his girls were all smiles afterward because they regrouped from that stumbling start to roar back and beat Chefornak, 51-30, in the Class 1A state championship game at Sullivan Arena.
The Malamutes, making their first state-tournament appearance since the 1998 edition won the title, relied on patience, persistence and rebounding to work their way back into the game in the second quarter and dominate it in the second half.
"I think (the start) was kind of like our warm-up,'' said Newhalen's Sierra Nickoli. "It's been like this for a while. We warm up, and then get together and play as a team.''
Lester said he wasn't too concerned by his team's slow start because the Shaman were only ahead 8-0 when Newhalen's Ariel Roberts made a free throw with 49 seconds left in the first quarter.
"I knew they had it in them,'' Lester said. "It was just trying to get them out of their shell. As soon as we cracked the zero, I knew we were OK.''
Trailing 10-4 after one quarter, Lester calmed his crew.
"We only scored four points in the first quarter, but we held them to 10, so I told them, 'Just keep doing what we're doing and the shots will fall,' " Lester said.
While the Malamutes shot just 21.2 percent from the field in the first half, the Shaman checked in at a mere 20.7 percent -- Newhalen led 18-15 at the break.
The Malamutes went on a 17-5 run bridging the third and fourth quarters to take control of the game, and tightened their grip even more when Chefornak center Andrea Tunuchuk fouled out just 22 seconds into the fourth quarter. Tunuchuk (four points, 10 rebounds) had been instrumental in Chefornak's charge to the title game, racking 30 points, 23 rebounds, 11 assists and eight steals in the Shamans' first two games.
Newhalen also benefitted from tenacious rebounding, earning a 60-39 edge on the boards. Kelsea Wassillie led the way with a game-high 13 rebounds and a game-high 14 points. Nickoli hauled down eight rebounds and scored 12 points. And Roberts chipped in nine rebounds to go with her seven points.
"Before state, our coach told us, 'Put a butt on somebody's gut,' and we decided to listen to him,'' Nickoli said. "It was good.''
Newhalen shot 40.6 percent in the second half while holding Chefornak, making its first appearance in the title game, to 21.4 percent second-half shooting and just 21.1 percent for the game.
The Malamutes were boosted by their energetic fans, including some in blue and white face-paint.
"Let's go, Malamutes, let's go!'' those fans chanted in the second half.
Lester said that the community held a fundraiser the day before the boys and girls teams departed town for the state tournament and raised enough to give each of the players $70 in spending money for the trip.
Wassillie said the fans made winning the championship even more special.
"It's a good feeling,'' she said. "The girls haven't gone to state since 1998 and to win was incredible.''
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Newhalen (51) -- Balluta 2, Nickoli 12, Rickteroff 2, K. Wassillie 14, Nanalook 5, Anelon 3, S. Wassillie 6, Roberts 7.
Chefornak (30) -- Mark 6, Panruk 6, Tunuchuk 4, Wisean 6, Sipary 8.
Newhalen 4 14 12 21 -- 51
Cheformak 10 5 8 7 -- 301A Boys: Seniors lead Newhalen to title
2A Boys: Noorvik wins championship
2A Girls: Point Hope claims crown
History: Past champions
By DOYLE WOODY
Anchorage Daily News