The Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé and the Thunder Mountain High School girls basketball teams know each other pretty well by now. Aside from both being Juneau based, these two cross-town rivals have squared off several times this season, always close finishes with games being decided down to the final seconds.
So, it seemed fitting that the two Juneau schools would face each other one final time this year on the final stage of all stages, the Alaska School Activities Association March Madness 2023 State Championship in Anchorage. And in staying true to both team’s usual form, it was yet another close finish decided in the final seconds. TMHS defeated JDHS to become Region V champs, however, this time around it would be the Crimson Bears who took the win with a 53-48 finish, securing the fourth place slot.
JDHS coach Tanya Nizich said as the first round of games concluded for the Southeast teams in this year’s state competition, in looking at the brackets, the Bears were hoping the “stars would align” so that they would have yet another chance to play TMHS. JDHS received an at-large bid and the No. 6 seed. TMHS, who secured a state berth with a conference title, entered as the No. 4 seed.
“In my mind going into it I was thinking, ‘Oh, wow, we finally have a full roster and a healthy team,’ and then that wasn’t so much the case after the first quarter with Skylar (Tuckwood) going down,” Nizich said. “I think our team just knew they were going to have to step it up at that point, that the game wasn’t finished and they still had three more quarters to go. And boy, talk about people stepping up for us, it was really incredible. If anything, I think that put some huge fire under some people.”
TMHS coach Andy Lee said there was much from throughout the season that the Falcons could hang their hats on and be proud of as they look forward to next year.
“We are proud and happy with our historic season,” Lee said. “Winning the regular season conference title, the Region V title, six consecutive regular season wins over our conference rival and a trip to state. We are proud of Kiara Endicott and Tyra Aguirre and Kayla Woodbury for their time as Falcons. We have established a program that will compete with the best in the state. We are excited about the future.”
Given that these were two teams from Juneau, the JDHS title-winning cheer squad split in half to cheer on both teams to give the city of Anchorage a taste of full Juneau pride.
The early going was all JDHS, with the Crimson Bears winning the tip followed by a layup from freshman Gwen Nizich for the first score of the quarter. JDHS junior Mila Hargrave fouled TMHS Kerra Baxter who managed to score on one of two shots at the line, however, Cailynn Baxter would then foul JDHS senior Skylar Tuckwood who, with additional help from Nizich and senior Kiyara Miller, extended the Bears lead to 7-1. The Bears would stay in charge for the remainder of the first, closing out the quarter at 13-3. Despite ending the quarter with the lead, J-D took a big hit after Tuckwood left the game with a knee injury. Nizich said it was too soon to determine the seriousness of the injury, but Tuckwood remained just as valuable on the bench as she always is on the court.
“I’m pretty sure she’s going to be a coach one of these days because the things she was relaying just from the bench, she’s the one that’s been playing every game, so you have to trust her when she says certain things,” Nizich said. “We made some different changes from just hearing the chatter and that’s when I told her, ‘You were born to be coach, Skylar.’”
Cailynn Baxter started the second quarter off with a drive for the first TMHS field goal of the game, followed by a 3-pointer from Mikah Carandang as the Falcons started to come alive. Additional points from Miller were then answered with scoring from TMHS’ Cambry Lockhart as the Falcons tried to climb their way back. JDHS’ Chloe Casperson was sent to the line and after making one of her free throw shots, the score was at 19-12. The Bears would suffer a big setback by halfway through the second when Tuckwood had to leave the game with an injury after falling on her way to the basket. Both teams would finish the quarter with additional fouls called, but J-D managed to hold the lead by the half at 27-16.
The second half of the game got started with an early foul called against JDHS senior Ashley Laudert onCailynn Baxter who, after making one of her free throw shots, brought the score up to 26-17, still JD’s lead. After another foul by Hargrave against Kiara Endicott, the Falcons slowly started to creep up on the scoreboard, 29-21 with a little less than six minutes remaining in the quarter. Miller was quick to answer back with a 3-point shot to extend the lead to 32-21. A putback from Endicott helped bring the score to a 1-point possession game with three minutes left, however, some additional scoring from Nizich helped the Bears keep the lead going into the fourth quarter.
Hargrave started the final quarter off with a nice 2-point shot followed by a foul which sent Kerra Baxter to the line for an extra point. JDHS called a timeout amid a TMHS trap with less than six minutes left to play and a 9-point game. Chloe Casperson came into the game in the fourth and provided assistance along with Izzy Waters who sank a 3-point shot with four minutes left in the fourth to extend the lead to 50-40.
Nizich praised Waters’ shooting, saying her 3-pointer was the “icing on the cake” the team needed at that exact point in the game.
“She’s just a standout shooter every day in practice,” Nizich said. “Whenever she goes in the game everyone is always telling her to shoot the ball because we know she can, and man, she hit it when we needed it the most.”
Endicott successfully put down a 3-point shot with just over three minutes left in the fourth, followed by JDHS burning off roughly 75 seconds off the clock to keep TMHS from closing the gap. TMHS managed to get the ball back, however, with 1:40 to go and with a foul sending Kerra Baxter to the line, the Falcons brought the score up to 50-44. Things stayed tense for the rest of the quarter, however after a game-clinching steal from Laudert, the Crimson Bears managed to secure the win and end their season in victory. Nizich said while it’s always hard to see a player leave the game from an injury, it was obvious that Tuckwood’s teammates were ready to rise to the occasion.
“Gwen (Nizich) stepped up with 12 points, as well,” Nizich said. “It was bittersweet because it’s always hard to see someone go down with an injury but it also showed us that we can step up, our sophomore, our juniors, everybody did, Chloe (Casperson) came in and did some big things for us. Mila (Hargrave) a big game for us, too, 11 points and even though Ashley (Laudert) only had 3 points, just her presence on the court, we had Ashley guarding one of the Baxters the whole game, which was a big task in itself and for her to guard her for the entire game and then still get some big boards for us and take control under the basket was huge.”
Nizich also praised the effort made by Miller as she finished the game with a career-high of 15 points, not only leading overall in scoring but also earning player of the game honors for JDHS, as well.
“We had a huge game from Kiyara (Miller), she had her best game of the season, she just totally stepped up and took control,” Nizich said. “I think with her just being a senior and being a leader on defense every game, she’s the one that keeps us on top of our defense game between her and Skylar. We’re always putting the burden on those two to guard some of the toughest players with every opponent that we play and Kiyara not only stepped up on defense but clearly on offense, as well.”
Hargrave was right behind Miller with 14 points and Nizich with 11. Cailynn Baxter was named player of the game for TMHS. Kerra Baxter led her team in scoring with 14 points while her sister Cailynn had 12, TMHS finished their season and the state tournament in sixth place.
The win wraps up Nizich’s first year at the helm for the JDHS girls, and she spoke highly of the team and her experience.
“I’m just so proud of our team, just a wonderful group of kids and it’s just the greatest way for us to end our season up at state, coming in ranked sixth and coming home ranked fourth,” Nizich said. “Great season, great team and what a fun first year at J-D. As long as they want me back, I’m here to stay.”
• Contact reporter Jonson Kuhn at firstname.lastname@example.org.