‘We’re going to compete hard’: Great Alaska Shootout brings excitement to Anchorage this weekend

SPONSORED: Join the action as defending champion UAA hosts one of the nation’s premier women’s college basketball tournaments on Nov. 18-19.

Presented by ConocoPhillips Alaska

This weekend, Anchorage gears up for a thrilling showcase of top-tier women’s college basketball with the return of the ASRC/ConocoPhillips Great Alaska Shootout.

“I’m excited to show our fans what we’ve been busy working on all preseason,” said Elaina Mack, a sophomore at UAA and Seawolves guard. “It’ll be a great competition.”

The University of Alaska Anchorage Seawolves will face some of the nation’s elite Division I teams during their first home games of the season, defending their 2022 championship title on Nov. 18-19 at the Alaska Airlines Center.

The Division II Seawolves will compete against the nationally 4th-ranked Utah Utes, the University of Alabama, Birmingham Blazers and the Eastern Kentucky Colonels, with the tournament tipping off at 5:15 p.m. on Saturday.

After a legendary career at Dimond High School, Anchorage’s Alissa Pili is returning to lead Utah against the Seawolves on opening night. Pili was the Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year as a junior, leading the Utes to the Pac-12 title and an NCAA ‘Sweet 16′ berth.

“We’re kind of the underdogs, but we also have the home court,” said Mack.

“Our players look at this opportunity as kind of once-in-a-lifetime. We’re just excited to compete as best we can at that highest level,” said UAA Women’s Basketball Coach Ryan McCarthy.

The tournament continues a longstanding Alaska tradition. After a four-year hiatus, it returned in 2022 on the women’s side, thanks in part to sponsors Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and ConocoPhillips Alaska. It also returned with a renewed focus of celebrating Alaska culture. Basketball is a popular sport across the state and holds particular importance in rural areas.

“We don’t want this to be a basketball tournament in Alaska – we want this to be an Alaska basketball tournament, and to showcase our many cultures and how basketball is interwoven into them,” said McCarthy.

With its rebirth last year, the tournament swapped gold pan trophies for Alaska Native art made of ivory, baleen and walrus skull. During the event, Alaska Native artists will be selling arts and crafts in the main foyer.

Alaskans can also celebrate the return of Pili, who has achieved All-America collegiate status after starring in basketball, wrestling, volleyball and track & field at Dimond. Saturday’s homecoming marks the first time she’s played at the Alaska Airlines Center since her senior season in 2019.

“I know local fans will be thrilled to welcome home one of the best players in state history .. and our players are even more fired up for the challenge,” said McCarthy.

At last year’s tournament, the Seawolves were met by large crowds and high energy as they pushed through to win the championship game, beating La Salle, 88-75.

“We’re the only Division II team in the history of college basketball to win a Division I tournament on the women’s side,” said McCarthy. “And we’ve done it eight times. It’s something Alaska can rally around.”

A new era of women’s collegiate basketball: ‘It’s a very exciting time’

The Great Alaska Shootout was an iconic Alaska basketball tournament for forty years before ending in 2017.

After losing the event, “it just felt like something was missing,” McCarthy said. And while there were plenty of tournaments for men’s college basketball, fewer opportunities existed for women.

In 2022, after much behind-the-scenes work, the tournament was revitalized with help from its sponsors. The Great Alaska Shootout restarted on the women’s side.

Sponsors have been crucial to the tournament’s success, said McCarthy.

ConocoPhillips Alaska is an “unbelievable supporter of UAA, and not just for the Great Alaska Shootout. They’ve been a supporter of our university from the academic realm all the way to athletics,” he said.

Interest in women’s basketball has boomed nationally. During the 2023 March Madness tournament, the NCAA women’s tournament set records for attendance and TV viewership, while men’s viewership declined.

“It’s a very exciting time in collegiate women’s basketball,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy grew up in Anchorage and attended the Great Alaska Shootout as a child. Today, he is the team’s winningest coach in school history. His coaching style has evolved since he began in 2012. He used to be focused solely on the win.

“But I’m really focused now on developing leaders,” said McCarthy.

Many of UAA’s players are first-generation college students pursuing bold futures for themselves and their families. They go on to become leaders within the community, from teachers to parole officers, to doctoral candidates.

“They have a real opportunity at UAA to change everything,” said McCarthy.

Mack, a kinesiology major, grew up in small town of King Cove, and led her high school through a 55-game winning streak before being recruited by the Seawolves.

In high school, “I thought that playing at UAA was a little bit far out of reach for me,” said Mack. So, when she got the call from McCarthy, she was “over-the-top excited to talk to him.”

Now, she gets to represent her home state and her family is able to attend her games. “That is really important for me, because they’re my biggest fans,” said Mack.

“I’m a kid from a village. So, it’s great that I get the opportunity to show others that good basketball players in the state don’t just come from the bigger schools,” Mack said.

This season, the team has a new lineup. With 2022 Shootout MVP Vishe’ Rabb still on the mend from knee surgery, the Seawolves return just three players from the team that won last year’s tournament, including Mack.

“I think there’s more excitement, because every drill that we do now is brand new to this team,” McCarthy said.

On Saturday, University of Alabama and Eastern Kentucky play at 5:15 p.m., followed by UAA and Utah at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, the third-place game starts at 5:15 p.m., with the first-round winners playing at 7:30 for the championship title.

The game schedule and tickets are available on the Seawolves’ website.

“Come see some great basketball. We’re going to compete hard,” said Mack.

This article was produced by the sponsored content department of Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with ConocoPhillips Alaska. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.