Led by a new coach, the East High boys basketball team began the new season the way the last one ended — with a victory.
The defending Class 4A state champs won their season opener 73-68 Thursday against Class 3A Nome in the first round of the Cougar Tip Off at Service High, getting 20 points from Desmond Johnson and 15 from Keith Brayton.
Other early winners from Thursday’s first round were Bartlett, Palmer and Service.
Jason Jno-Lewis, an assistant coach last season, took over as head coach after Josh Muehlenkamp resigned last month. Thrilled to continue working with the Thunderbirds after last season’s title run, Jno-Lewis said the team was particularly pumped up for the game because their scheduled season opener against Soldotna was canceled earlier this month due to poor weather and travel conditions.
“The anticipation was mounting,” he said. “We had butterflies and were nervous. It’s exciting, getting that out of the way and getting down to business.”
East built a 39-27 halftime lead and led comfortably throughout the second half, but Nome closed strong. Tyler Eide, who deposited 20 points for the Nanooks, hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to pull his team within five after trailing by as many as 16 points.
“I didn’t want this to get ugly,” said Nome coach Patrick Callahan. “I felt like guys could have given up and they didn’t. They stayed with it and had a chance to get back into it.”
Nome, led by a game-high 25 points from 6-foot-9 senior Cass Mattheis, trailed 58-42 at the end of three quarters. The Nanooks cut the lead to 10 with 5:38 to play in the fourth, but East’s Eudy Gomez (eight points) drilled a 3-pointer to stretch the lead back to 13.
Nome cut the lead to seven with less than two minutes to play, but Johnson answered with a layup with 1:17 to play, putting East up 71-62. After a free throw from Nome, Johnson was fouled on a drive and swished the pair of ensuing foul shots for East’s final two points and a 73-63 lead with less than a minute to go.
“It’s our first game of the season, a learning experience for some of these guys,” said Johnson, a 5-10 junior guard who played a key role in the Thunderbirds’ march to a title last season. “I think, over the season, we’ll get better.”
East lost five seniors from last season’s squad, including Desmond’s brother Xavier Johnson, Jarred Laws Matt Hardwick and Austin Huss, who all are playing junior college basketball this season.
Last season’s title was the first for East since 2000 and it pulled off the feat in the role of an underdog. The Thunderbirds came into the state tournament with an 18-6 record and squared off in the state final against a Service team that had only lost to one Alaska team all season. It just so happened that East was the only team to beat Service in the regular season, and they pulled it off a second time with a 66-59 win for all the marbles.
Johnson feels pretty good about coming into this season as a defending state champ, but said it’s time to move on.
“We can’t think about last year,” Desmond Johnson said. “We gotta think of this year and how everyone is down on us right now. We just gotta keep playing hard.”
Bartlett 78, E.R. 50
Four players scored in double-figures for Bartlett in a 78-50 first-round win over Eagle River.
Marquis White led the way with 20 points, scoring 14 in the third quarter. Kage Freelove racked 14 points, Payton Fullmer hit for 13 and Edress Irving chipped in 11.
Thomas Jones led Eagle River with 11 points, and Daniel Dirscherl knocked in 10.
Palmer 57, Chug. 50
Palmer’s Adam Ramoth was hot at the start of a 57-50 first-round win over Chugiak, dropping in four field goals in the first quarter on his way to a game-high 20 points.
Cody Wells and James Nisbett each hit double figures for the Moose, notching 11 and 10 points respectively.
Matt Oldenkamp led Chugiak with 14 points, scoring 10 in the second half, and Kenny Pegues finished with 13.
Service 53, Kodiak 50
Behind 19 points from Ihro Raguindin and 18 from Reece Robinson, the Service boys hung on for a 53-50 first-round win over Kodiak.
The Cougars led 37-30 at halftime and were outscored 20-16 in the second half.
Alec Canete-Hall led Kodiak with 18 points, and Austin Frick poured in 15.
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
Cougar Tip Off
At Service High
Thursday’s first-round results
Bartlett 78, Eagle River 50
East 73, Nome 68
Palmer 57, Chugiak 50
Service 53, Kodiak 50
Eagle River vs. Nome, 2 p.m.
Chugiak vs. Kodiak, 3:45 p.m.
Bartlett vs. East, 5:15 p.m.
Palmer vs. Service, 7 p.m.
By JEREMY PETERS