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A magic night for Alaska basketball and hockey fans

  • Author: Beth Bragg
  • Updated: November 11, 2019
  • Published November 9, 2019

It was a night to remember, times two.

A spectacular evening of sports packed two Anchorage arenas with more than 11,000 spectators Friday night, an evening filled with joy, drama and a galaxy of old stars and new ones.

At the Sullivan Arena, a sellout crowd of more than 6,000 people rocked the aging building by cheering some of Anchorage’s all-time most popular athletes — Alaska Aces alumni hockey players (who, by the way, are also aging).

At the Alaska Airlines Center, more than 5,100 people and an ESPN national television audience watched high-level college basketball make an electrifying return to Anchorage, giving fans a glimpse of a couple projected NBA lottery picks.

The Sullivan Arena had homegrown Scott Gomez, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and the NHL’s 2000 rookie of the year. He was one of many who found the net in a 14-5 goal-fest that was so much of a love-fest for avid Aces fans — who lost the object of their affection when the team folded after the 2016-17 season — that it doesn’t really matter who won and who lost.

The Alaska Airlines Center had the Washington Huskies and the hometown Seawolves, who both put on a show in ESPN’s Armed Forces Classic doubleheader. The Huskies erased a double-digit lead in the final minutes to upset 16th-ranked Baylor 67-64 and UAA put on a shooting clinic to beat the Coast Guard Academy 88-78.

The Sullivan Arena had Bobby Hill, the Special Olympics athlete whose crowd-pleasing “horseman” routine — in which he races around the arena on a stick horse while the William Tell overture plays — turned hockey players into fans.

The Alaska Airlines Center had JBER troops rappelling from the rafters before the game, a nod to the event’s military connection.

If there has been a bigger single night in Anchorage sports, it’s hard to recollect.

At the Sullivan, “It was like a time warp,” said Bob Lester, the longtime PA announcer who helped arrange the two-game Alaska Aces alumni series, which expected to draw another sellout crowd Saturday night.

“The coolest moment happened so organically,” he said. “They sent Bobby Hill out to do the horseman thing and there was a play stoppage, and all of the players were tapping their sticks on the ice and the crowd went nuts.”

At the Alaska Airlines Center, the wave swept unprompted through the arena and a couple dozen camouflage-wearing troops took part in a halftime reenlistment ceremony.

“It’s just an unbelievable experience for us to be able to entertain and give back to the men and women in this country who protect us every day,” said UAA coach Rusty Osborne, whose father and father-in-law both served in the Air Force and flew in the Vietnam War.

While middle-aged men enjoyed a return to the spotlight at Sullivan (among those piling up points was 1988 Service High grad Derek Donald), guys at the start of their careers dazzled at the Alaska Airlines Center.

The Huskies got a boost from two freshmen who are projected lottery picks in next year’s NBA draft — 6-foot-9 guard Jaden McDaniels (18 points, 7 rebounds) and 6-9 forward Isaiah Stewart (15 points, 7 rebounds) — and from 6-6 junior guard Nahziah Carter (23 points, 7 rebounds, 3 steals). UAA got a spark from 6-6 senior guard Niko Bevens, who drilled 8 of his 9 shots from behind the 3-point line to set a school record for long-range shooting accuracy.

In a day-after story analyzing Washington’s big victory, the Seattle Times said the game was played “on a frigid Friday night in Anchorage, Alaska.”

The thermometer would beg to differ, and so would the more than 11,000 fans who enjoyed a hot night of hoops and pucks.