Championship day at Sullivan Arena opened with a one-point thriller Wednesday, a game that ended with a scene that only March basketball can produce: a pair of Newhalen seniors playing catch as the clock ran out on their 61-60 Class 1A girls title-game victory, and a Shishmaref sophomore collapsing at center court, sobbing.
Joy on one side, heartbreak on the other. By the margin of one missed free throw, the Malamutes are back on top with their second state championship in three years.
Newhalen senior Kelsea Wassillie grabbed the biggest rebound of her life after Shishmaref sophomore Denise Fernandez missed a free throw that would have tied the game with 11 seconds left, and then passed the ball back and forth with fellow senior Ayla Rickteroff until time expired.
"I was pretty nervous that she'd make both of (the free throws) and the game would go into overtime," Wassillie said.
And the Malamutes didn't want overtime -- two of their starters, both inside players, had fouled out and Wassillie, their main inside threat, was playing with four fouls.
"Intense. Intense," Newhalen coach Ed Lester said. "Shishmaref's got some talent. They've got some heart."
The game was the first of four straight championship games Wednesday at Sullivan Arena as the first half of March Madness Alaska concluded. The second half begins Thursday when the Class 4A and Class 3A boys and girls take the court.
The crowds are bigger and the players generally better at those higher levels, but Newhalen and Shishmaref lacked nothing when it came to intensity or passion. The rest of the week is unlikely to produce a more touching moment than when Shishmaref coach Susie Rilling walked to center court to comfort Fernandez, who sat there in a heap, her head buried in her hands as she cried. Rilling crouched down, put an arm around Fernandez and helped her to her feet, and the two made the slow walk back to the bench, where the rest of the Northern Lights sat somberly, many with red eyes.
Missed free throws doomed Shishmaref, which was 16 of 28 from the foul line. The Northern Lights missed six of nine foul shots in the final three minutes, including four in a row, by three different players, when they were leading 53-51 near the end.
Newhalen's rebounding superiority made the difference at the end. The Malamutes tied the game 53-53 on a follow shot by Zoe Anelon and went up 55-53 when Wassillie grabbed a defensive rebound and threw a long pass to Rickteroff for a layup. Shishmaref tied it with Cheyenne Nayokpuk's layup but Newhalen took the lead for good 57-55 on Wasillie's put back.
Newhalen outrebounded Shishmaref 44-38, with five players getting five or more rebounds.
"We worked on that the last month -- the little things," Lester said. "We went back to basics and focused on rebounding, passing, boxing out."
Wassillie finished with 21 points and eight rebounds and Rickteroff added 11 points and six rebounds for Newhalen. Shiann Nanalook added 11 points and nine rebounds, and Rhiannon Nanalook had 12 points.
Hersrud, a senior, led all scorers with 23 points to go along with seven rebounds and six steals for Shishmaref. Jessica Kuzuguk added 14 points and Fernandez finished with nine points and six rebounds.
Buckland held Kiana to two points in the second quarter to capture third place with a 41-36 victory.
Courtney Hadley paced the Sissauni with 11 points and seven rebounds. Taylene Jones added seven points, seven rebounds, two assists and two steals.
Kiana, which was outscored 15-2 in the decisive second quarter, was led by Amber Barr's 16 points, which included four 3-pointers.
Jazzlyn Garnie racked 22 points to lift Teller past Yakutat 30-26 in the fourth-place game at West.
Kasia Adams scored 12 points for Yakutat and was the only other player in double figures. All but six of Yakutat's points came from the bench.
Yakutat, which trailed by as many as 11 points, chipped away at Teller's lead in the fourth quarter, cutting it to 29-26 with 33 seconds left. Allison Topkok sank a free throw with five seconds remaining to round out the scoring.
In a rematch of last year's championship game, Nikolaevsk beat rival Cook Inlet Academy 45-26 in the consolation championship game, a win that essentially makes the Warriors the ninth-place team.
Both teams suffered losses in Saturday's play-in games at West High. They bounced back with victories Monday and Tuesday in the consolation tournament for Saturday's losers, earning a chance to play Wednesday at Sullivan Arena.
Nianella Dorvall's double-double (17 points, 10 rebounds) led Nikolaevsk. Kayla Stafford added 12 points and Kilina Klaich had nine points, four steals and three assists.
CIA, which beat the Warriors in triple overtime to win last year's state title, got 12 points, six rebounds and five steals from Nicole Moffis.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4335. Reporter Mike Nesper contributed to this report.
By BETH BRAGG