Following in the footsteps of a historic team is a daunting task for any group of young athletes.
However, after upsetting top-seeded West Valley 53-48 in the 4A basketball Alaska state championship on Saturday night at the Alaska Airlines Center, the Bettye Davis East boys team proved ready to emerge from the shadows into the spotlight.
“A lot of people doubted us, they said we couldn’t do it, and we just got it done,” sophomore Muhammed Sabally said.
The Thunderbirds only returned a small contingent of players from last year’s state runner-up team that fell to South on a buzzer-beater in the 2022 title game. None of them were starters.
“I’m tickled for them and tickled for the program because of how last year ended,” head coach Chuck Martin said. “To come back a year later, turn the roster over and have this group get to this point and get it done is tremendously satisfying.”
East graduated a legendary class of seniors last spring that set a record for most consecutive wins against Alaskan competition in basketball, won a state championship as juniors in 2021 and won three football championships as well.
“This group has lived behind that group of seniors from last year the whole time they’ve been in this program from the day they walked in,” Martin said. “A lot of these kids could’ve played at other schools on varsity the last couple of years.”
Sabally was a freshman on last year’s team that came up just short and is grateful for the time he had to develop behind and alongside the 2022 graduating class.
“I told the guys last year that I got their backs,” he said. “I appreciate the starting five from last year. They pushed me every day in practice to become the man I am today and win a state championship.”
The 6-foot-3 guard recorded more than 40 percent of his team’s point total and was its only player to record double figures with 20 points and also led the team in rebounds with seven boards.
Xyomar Velez was a sophomore on the 2021 state championship team but was a starter this time around and was elated to go out on top as a senior.
“After watching them do it, I just wanted to do it myself and actually work for it,” he said.
Following a back-and-forth opening period in which the Wolfpack emerged with a slim 11-9 lead, the Thunderbirds took flight and outscored West Valley 20-5 in the second quarter.
West Valley star Stewart Erhart recorded the first bucket of the period but Sabally would spark a 13-0 run with back-to-back three pointers to take the lead, and his team would never trail the rest of the way.
“I told the guys let’s go get it,” he said. “It’s our year to win the state championship.”
After building a sizable lead, the Thunderbirds played keep-away for most of the second half, content with salting away the clock much to the chagrin of frustrated Fairbanks fans in attendance that showered them with boos whenever they held the ball.
“We spaced out, took advantage of the 90-foot floor, and made them come guard us because they were playing a zone (defense),” Sabally said.
The two-time Gatorade Player of the Year, Erhart didn’t take over the game in the same way he usually did but was able to get his team within four points in the final minute of the game before East was able to ice the game by going 7-of-8 on their final free throw attempts.
“Erhart kind of got loose and being the player he is, made the game close,” Martin said. “But at the end of the day, we got enough stops and we got enough rebounds to keep them at bay.”
The West Valley senior standout still managed to finish with a game-high 25 points and nine rebounds.
Regional wakeup call proved pivotal
Team members said their lopsided 60-39 loss to Dimond in the CIC region title game really helped forge the championship team they would eventually become.
“We just used it as motivation,” Velez said. “We didn’t let that determine what we would do at state because we know we’re still capable of being the best we can be.”
From that point on the Thunderbirds were dialed in and came into state with a whole different mindset as well as a renewed sense of pride and purpose
“We have been focused and committed to what I’ve been trying to preach to them all year,” Martin said. “They came in here and applied it for three games.”
Depth proved key to title run
East developed excellent depth during the course of the postseason run, and Martin consistently subbed in several members of his bench in close games and blowouts alike.
“Kids have to earn the right and ability to play in big games,” Martin said. “When you have blowout games and kids get to play, it doesn’t mean that they can play in crunch time or quality minutes. You have to develop that and you have to prove that in practice.”
He also knew they would need to rely on and potentially lean on their depth over the course of the state tournament.
“When you get to the state tournament, you’re going to play three games in four days on a bigger floor against better competition,” Martin said. “It’s going to be hard and strenuous. I’m not sure if you can win a state tournament anymore with just five guys.”
Martin said Sabally and junior Akeem Sulaiman will be the top returners next year along with a promising group of freshmen.
“Our young kids can’t wait for their chance now,” he said. “We will enjoy this but a couple weeks from now, we’ll start looking forward to next year to see how good we can be.”
4A Boys state basketball tournament
No. 1 West Valley 60, No. 8 Juneau-Douglas 37
No. 3 Bettye Davis East 54, No. 6 Anchorage Christian 30
No. 4 Monroe Catholic 45, No. 5 Colony 30
No. 7 West Anchorage 69, No. 2 Dimond 63 (OT)
Juneau-Douglas 73, Colony 64
Dimond 58, Anchorage Christian 30
West Valley 44, Monroe Catholic 41
Bettye Davis East 62, West 31
Dimond 82, Juneau-Douglas 58
West 57, Monroe Catholic 54
Bettye Davis East 53, West Valley 48
4A Boys All-Tournament Team
Julius Adlawan, West High; Muhammed Sabally, Bettye Davis East; Xzavier Baker, Dimond; Akeem Sulaiman, Bettye Davis East; Stewart Erhart, West Valley; Deshawn Rushmeyer, Bettye Davis East; Orion Dybdahl, Juneau-Douglas; William Bast, Monroe Catholic; Malachi Bradley, West Valley; Luke Johnston, Dimond.