Once the game began, things were fine for the Wasilla Warriors. It was the moments leading up to their 56-33 victory over West Valley in Saturday's Class 4A girls championship game that things were looking shaky for the defending state champions.
Alysha Devine, the team's 6-foot third-team all-state selection, woke up sick, some kind of stomach bug or something.
Alexis Imoe, the team's play-making second-team all-state selection, had an attack of pregame jitters over her defensive assignment.
Alyssa Hutchins, the team's sweet-shooting Player of the Year and first-team all-state selection, was so eager to play after missing last year's championship game with an injury, she was a bundle of nerves. "I didn't think I'd be nervous, but my face turned bright red," she said.
For all those worries, the Warriors turned in a performance at Sullivan Arena that earned them a convincing victory and their second straight title.
Imoe, a 5-8 junior, led a defense that didn't give up a field goal during a span of more than nine minutes in the first half.
She all but silenced West Valley star Hannah Mattson, a first-team all-state guard who was held to a single field goal and scored six of her nine points on free throws in the final two minutes.
"The last two weeks we've been playing really good defense," Wasilla coach Jeannie Hebert-Truax said. "Alexis Imoe did a great job on Hannah Mattson. ... She doesn't try to over-gamble, she just stays between her man and the basket. Fundamental defense."
Fundamental, perhaps, but Imoe had trepidations about the match-up.
"I was really nervous before the game. I played with Hannah this summer. She's a really quick guard," she said.
But Imoe was able to keep up with Mattson and she used her strength to sometimes overpower the 5-9 junior. Imoe was a big part of Mattson's 1-for-13 shooting night, but Mattson also missed some open looks, as did some of her teammates.
The Wolfpack (24-4) shot 8 of 52, with many attempts contested, but some of them not.
"We got a lot of shots, but this was probably our worst shooting percentage all season," West Valley coach Steve Caciari said. "We could not convert the normal shots we made. It was like a virus, and then it just steamrolled from there."
West Valley made a game of it for the first six minutes, leading 8-6 on Caitlin Brice's 3-pointer with just more than two minutes left in the first quarter.
But Wasilla (27-1) scored seven points in the final minute of the quarter -- Hutchins tied the game with a pretty layup, Pherrari Brumbaugh put the Warriors in the lead for good with a 3-pointer and Imoe hit a two-footer -- to grab a 13-8 lead and West Valley never recovered.
The Warriors widened their lead in the second quarter, controlling the boards, getting nine points from Imoe and now allowing a field goal until the final 30 seconds.
They led 24-11 at the half, and Hutchins confessed that she knew then the game was in hand.
"I'm not supposed to say that," she said. "We're all supposed to pretend it's 0-0 at the half."
Imoe scored a game-high 22 points and Hutchins added 15, seven of them in a quick burst midway through the fourth quarter when Wasilla went on a 9-0 run right after West Valley deployed a full-court press.
Wasilla owned a 43-32 rebound advantage behind 10 boards from Kyla Dinkel and nine apiece from Devine and Savanna Burke. Mattson led West Valley with 11 rebounds.
"Wasilla is good, and they don't have many weaknesses," Caciari said. "They're very experienced at this level."
The game marked the third straight season the Warriors advanced to the title game. Wasilla won last year's title by defeating Juneau-Douglas, which had beaten Wasilla in the 2010 championship game.
Hutchins missed last year's championship game with a broken arm. She watched it from the end of the bench, in a skirt and high heels.
This time, she got to break a sweat.
"Last year when we won state I was so excited for all my girls, but part of me longed to play," said Hutchins, who will play at UAA next season. "I got to feel what they felt last year."
West Valley, which got 11 points from Brice, was making its first championship game appearance, something Caciari said the players will remember forever.
"We won two games and got to the title game. That's something to be proud of," he said. "That's in the history books for them to remember when they're grandmas and their granddaughters or grandsons are headed here. They'll open the newspaper and see that time West Valley made the championship game."
Reach Beth Bragg at email@example.com or 257-4335.
WEST VALLEY (33) -- Brice 11, Mattson 9, Marques 2, Phillips 2, Ashmore 2, Washborn 7.
WASILLA (56) -- Hutchins 15, Imoe 22, Koso 2, Brumbaugh 6, Devine 3, Dinkel 6, Burke 2.
West Valley 8 3 9 13 -- 33
Wasilla 13 11 13 19 -- 56
By BETH BRAGG
Anchorage Daily News