Heading into their Saturday night title bout in the championship game of the 2023 Alaska Airlines Classic against Heritage Christian, a highly regarded team out of California, the Grace Christian boys basketball team knew it was up against long odds.
The 2022 3A state runner-ups were counted out by many before they even stepped on the court for tipoff.
To have a chance to keep up with the heavily favored opponent, they knew they’d have to play with physicality and confidence.
That’s exactly what Grace Christian did in earning a 53-50 triumph to claim its ninth consecutive victory of the season, win its third tournament title in a row and become the the fifth Alaska team to win the Alaska Airlines Classic since its inception in 1989. The Grizzlies are also the first 3A team to win since 2006.
“We were fearless going into this and there was no doubt in our minds that we could compete with this team,” senior guard Joshua Ivanoff said. “We came out there, we had the dog in us and it was a great game.”
The teams matched each other blow for blow all night. They were tied 12-12 at the end of the first quarter 30-30 at halftime, Heritage led 40-38 after the third, and Grace scored the last five points to pull off the upset and stun the Warriors.
“We had to play with fearless joy and kept telling ourselves ‘Why not us? Why not? We can do this,’ ” Grace Christian coach Jason Boerger said.
For the second week in a row their final margin of victory was extended by a couple of clutch free throws except this time around, it was all-tournament team selection junior Kellen Jedlicka, who was sent to the charity stripe.
“Kellen came in clutch tonight, last night it was Luke (Lentfer), and the previous week it was Sloan (Lentfer),” Boerger said. “Guys are stepping up and getting it done. We wouldn’t be where we are without improvement in free throw shooting this year.”
While Jedlicka iced the game, it was Ivanoff who knocked down a 3-pointer to pull his team back in front 51-50 with less than a minute left on the clock.
“This is my dream,” he said. “Growing up, I came here every year. I remember Dimond play Trinity Prep with Daishen Nix (originally of Fairbanks). It’s amazing to win this tournament.”
That wasn’t the first time he answered the call when the team needed a timely bucket as was lethal from behind the arc all game long going 4-of-8 from long range to finish tied for the second-most points on the team with 12.
“He’s been really clutch at the end of games especially hitting pretty much any 3-pointer,” Sloan Lentfer said.
Lentfer was named tournament MVP for the second weekend in a row and recorded a double-double in back-to-back games by leading the team with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
“This is the best I’ve played pretty much ever and I’m excited to see where I can go the rest of the year,” he said.
He and his cousin Luke Lentfer, who tied Ivanoff with 12 points and was one rebound away from a double-double of his own with 9 rebounds, were quite the dynamic duo down in the post.
The Grizzlies vowed they would lean on their often-overwhelming physicality and in doing so, they gave the Warriors all they could handle, outrebounding them 25-21 and contesting the vast majority of their field goals.
“Our intention coming into the game was to be physical,” Boerger said. “We’re bigger and physical and that’s who we are. We wanted to do that, but we also knew that Heritage Christian is so gifted and so talented that they really storm out in the first quarter. A big effort was just to try to control the tempo at the start of the game.”
Grace Christian was able to hold Heritage Christian star sophomore Tae Simmons, who had just dropped 26 points on Bettye Davis East in Friday’s semifinals, to just eight points with four coming in each half.
“To us, the only we could do was just pack it in and force them to take tough outside shots and rebound like crazy,” Boerger said. “The refs let us play today and we were able to board big inside. It was at the rebounding end where we were just dominant.”
With Simmons slowed, senior Giovanni Goree picked up the slack and poured a game-high 20 points but couldn’t get the potential game-tying 3-pointer to fall on his team’s final possession of the game.
After coming up short in several tournaments last year, most notably the 3A state title game to underdog Nome-Beltz, Grace Christian is hoping the tremendous amount of confidence and momentum gained from this most recent experience will propel it to even greater heights moving forward.
“I think we’re still fueled by the sting of last year,” Boerger said. “The hyper-focus that you can be good but we want to be unbreakable and to be unbreakable, we just got to be really attentive to every detail. We’ve held each other accountable and we love each other.”
Alaska Airlines Classic
Sloan Lentfer, Grace Christian (MVP)
Tae Simmons, Heritage Christian
Luke Lentfer, Grace Christian
JJ Parker, Ketchikan
Deshawn Rushmeyer, East Anchorage
Giovanni Goree, Heritage Christian
Julius Adlawan, West Anchorage
Ya Ya Greer, Higley
Akeem Sulaiman, East Anchorage
Kellen Jedlicka, Grace Christian