The two top-ranked teams in the state at the high school boys 4A level, according to the latest Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches rankings, faced off Thursday night when Dimond hosted Bettye Davis East High.
Both teams came into the highly anticipated matchup with unblemished 8-0 conference records, and the Thunderbirds were still a perfect 16-0 against Alaska competition.
Even though it wasn’t the high-scoring affair many had expected, it still wound up being an exciting back-and-forth bout in which the Lynx ultimately prevailed 45-44 thanks to a stingy defensive performance and some timely offensive runs.
“Coming into it, I knew East was going to be a challenge,” Dimond senior forward Xzavier Baker said. “They’re a very good team, undefeated as well, so I know in the state, they’re (among) our biggest competition. We just had to come hard, play hard and play efficiently.”
Baker said a defensive change was influential in holding the Thunderbirds to the low total.
“We usually play a lot of zone like in previous seasons but we switched to man and I’m just proud of how we played and how we held them under a certain amount of points,” Baker said.
The result extended Dimond’s winning streak to 10 straight games while snapping East’s mark, which had been nine in a row. Both teams now hold identical records at 16-2.
“A lot of people think we’re an offensive-minded team, putting up points in the 70s and 80s, but I think we’re also a great defensive team so I wasn’t surprised,” Dimond senior guard Luke Johnston said.
This also marked Dimond’s second win of the season over one of the top teams in the state, as the Lynx also handed previously unbeaten West Valley its first loss of the year on Jan. 27. That 57-54 Dimond win came in the second round of the Wolfpack Ice Jam basketball tournament.
“They were both good games and great competition for us to play against, so it will definitely help when March rolls around,” Johnston said.
Dimond was led in scoring by Johnston, who recorded 11 points. Seniors Maguire Hamey and Malachi Casey tied for the second-most with 10 points apiece.
“A big part of our game today was Malachi Casey,” Johnston said. “He stepped up huge. I think he scored seven straight points for us and went on his own run. That was a huge momentum shift for us.”
East had over two-thirds of its total points come from two players: Both Axel Carpio and Muhammed Sabally tied for the team lead with a game-high 15 points.
Baker was three missed free throws away from reaching double figures in points, but he did score Dimond’s first points of the game on one of the two first-half dunks that he slammed down with authority.
“Those dunks were crazy and they’re always a huge momentum boost for us,” Johnston said. “It was great to have him start the game off with those.”
While Baker managed to go 1-for-4 from the charity stripe on the night, his successful attempt helped give Dimond a narrow three-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
“I got a little frustrated after missing the first one because I know I had to get us up by three at least because I know they have a lot of shooters that can come through in the end,” Baker said.
The triumph over the 2022 state runner-up Thunderbirds was a nice litmus test for a Lynx team with championship aspirations of its own.
“We have a lot of confidence going into the final weeks of the season,” Johnston said. “We’ve beaten two of the top teams in the state but we understand there’s still room for us to improve so we’re just taking it one game at a time.”
The two teams will square off again at East’s gym in less than two weeks, at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 28.
“The thing about that is we love playing in situations like that,” Baker said. “We love playing in big crowds and to beat them on their home court would be a great thing for us.”