The Newhalen Malamutes had to go shopping before their semifinal game Tuesday. They needed pink socks.
They didn't all pick out the same style or the same shade, but each of them had some pink on their feet. And though the socks had absolutely nothing to do with Newhalen's 48-40 semifinal victory over Buckland in the Class 1A girls state basketball tournament, they had everything to do with making sure the girls keep the game in perspective.
A day earlier, said assistant coach Henry Olympic, "I asked them if they could do me a favor." The daughter of Olympic's cousin recently had breast cancer surgery in Anchorage, and Olympic wanted the players to wear pink as a show of support. Anna Rose Chukwak is in her early 20s and used to play basketball for Bristol Bay, and some of the Newhalen players know her, Olympic said.
And so the Malamutes made a stop at The Mall at Sears part of their pregame plan Tuesday. They did it to honor a young woman whose life recently took a traumatic turn, and they did it to honor a couple of women in their village who have also fought the disease.
"Because when all is said and done, this is just basketball," head coach Ed Lester said. "They should have fun and put things in perspective."
Newhalen will play for the state title against Shishmaref, which rallied past Kiana 50-48 in Tuesday's other semifinal game.
The title game will mark the first time the Shishmaref girls have played for a state championship -- the boys won the 2002 title.
The Northern Lights trailed by five points with less than four minutes to play but scored 10 straight points for a 49-44 lead with 30 seconds left.
Kiana's Linsey Westlake Reich hit one of two free throws with 19 seconds left and, after a Shishmaref turnover, banked in a 3-pointer with five seconds left, making it 49-48 with 2.5 seconds left. A foul sent Shishmaref's Denise Fernandez to the line with one second left, and the sophomore hit one of two free throws to give her team the two-point win.
Fernandez hit 8 of 10 foul shots to share team scoring honors with Jessica Kuzuguk; both scored 13 points. Debra Hersrud provided a 12-point, 12-rebound double-double, and Fernandez added seven rebounds and four assists.
Kiana got 11 rebounds and seven points from Reich, 12 points and seven rebounds from Amber Barr, 12 points and seven assists from Kirsten Beecroft and 11 points from Martha Wells.
While the Northern Lights will get their first taste of championship-game action Tuesday, Newhalen is back in the title game for the second time in three years. The Malamutes won the 2012 championship and made it to the semifinals last year, losing to eventual champion Cook Inlet Academy.
The Malamutes survived a roller-coaster game with Buckland. Both teams suffered through extended scoring droughts -- Newhalen went eight minutes without a point in the first half and Buckland went five minutes without scoring at the end of the second quarter and start of the third quarter.
Then, after Newhalen built a seemingly safe 10-point lead with less than two minutes left, Buckland roared back with eight quick, unanswered points to make it a two-point game. The Malamutes ended with an 8-0 run to advance to the championship game.
"Any game that we're close, I have a lotta confidence in them," Lester said. "My girls hit big shots down the stretch."
Some of the biggest shots came from his daughter, Alya Rickteroff, who scored a game-high 16 points to go with six rebounds. At one point, late in the game with the outcome still in doubt, the ball rolled under the Newhalen bleachers and Rickteroff crawled underneath to retrieve it as Malamute fans cheered wildly. Among them was a 9-year-old named Aileen, who was perched on the railing separating fans from the floor, waving pompoms and talking to Rickteroff, who was only about two feet away from her. "That's my sister," Rickteroff told the referee as she prepared to in-bound the ball.
Kelsea Wasillie, a senior who spent a long time on the bench with four fouls, grabbed 11 rebounds and created havoc defensively, and freshman Rhianna Anelon hit two key 3-pointers en route to eight points for Newhalen.
Emma Thomas led Buckland with 13 points and nine rebounds.
Yakutat and Teller rebounded from first-round losses with victories in Tuesday's consolation round.
Jazzlyn Garnie turned in her second blockbuster game of the tournament, racking up 28 points and 12 rebounds to power Teller's 46-28 victory over St. Marys.
Garnie hit 9 of 17 field goals and 10 of 15 free throws for her second double-double in as many games. On Monday, she posted 23 points and 16 rebounds in a loss to Newhalen.
Yakutata's Janie Jensen dropped in 16 points and Ciara Lord added 10 points and six rebounds in a 39-26 decision over Koliganek. Yakutat broke open the game with an 11-3 third quarter.
Samantha Ishnook and Ashleanne Ishnook combined for 22 points for Koliganek.
Reach Beth Bragg at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4335.
By BETH BRAGG