The Thunder Mountain High School Falcons Region V champion girls basketball team pose for a photo during practice at the Thunderdome on Friday. The Falcons begin state tournament play Wednesday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

The Thunder Mountain High School Falcons Region V champion girls basketball team pose for a photo during practice at the Thunderdome on Friday. The Falcons begin state tournament play Wednesday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center. (Klas Stolpe / For the Juneau Empire)

Thunder Mountain girls basketball team ready for back-to-back state tournament play

No. 4 Falcons begin school’s final chase for a title against No. 5 Dimond High School on Wednesday.

The Thunder Mountain High School Falcons girls basketball team is building on their repeat as Region V champion last week to pick up where they finished last season, on the court with Alaska’s best, when they open competition in the 2024 ASAA March Madness Alaska 4A Basketball State Championships on Wednesday at Anchorage’s Alaska Airlines Center.

“There is the sense that we were here last year,” TMHS coach Andy Lee said. “So we are doing it a little bit better. We are eliminating some of the things we didn’t do as well. And we’ve got six seniors, so leadership isn’t an issue, and we come in pretty healthy…I think we are as ready as we can be and by Wednesday, we’ll be a little more ready.”

The fourth-seeded Falcons (22-3) will face the fifth-seeded Dimond Lynx (26-6), the top team from Anchorage in the tournament, at 4:45 p.m. in the Aux Gym at the AAC.

Dimond features senior point guard Maile Wilcox — the Alaska Player of the Year who has signed with Adams State College in Colorado — and junior, 6’2” all-around player Evan Hamey, the daughter of former Crimson Bears star Chris Hamey.

“Wilcox is a bona-fide player and capable of taking over a game,” Lee said. “So we have to pay attention to her…if you are the most valuable player in the state’s largest city at a high school that produced Alissa Pili (a top 10 collegiate player at Utah) then you’re probably a pretty good player…and they have terrific role players and the whole team can shoot… They are a lot like us. They like to get up and down the floor, they have shooters, and they have size.”

The Falcons are made to play Dimond. TMHS has size with junior twins Cailynn and Kerra Baxter and senior Kara Strong; speed and touch with senior twins Jaya and Mikah Carandang, sophomore Cambry Lockhart, and freshman Bergen Erickson; senior confidence and leadership with Ashlyn Gates, Jenna Dobson and Keidree Hartman; and experienced depth with junior Addison Wilson and sophomore Nani Frommherz.

“I think that we have a really good group of girls, and we’re extra motivated,” co-captain Kara Strong said. “We talked about this in the locker room: it’s like senior year for everybody. It’s the last time we get to play together, some of us are graduating, some are going over to the other school. It’s the only time this team is going to be like it is right now. Our last year of having a high school. It just gives everybody that extra motivation to go as far as we can. We are all super excited to do this again and hopefully have a better outcome than last year.”

The Falcons traveled to state for the first time last season, placing sixth. They lost to West Anchorage 54-50, defeated Dimond 53-47 and lost to JDHS 53-48.

“We know that we can compete now,” co-captain Ashlyn Gates said. “Last year we didn’t really have the experience level, but now that we have been to state, we know what the stadium is like and the nerves…I think we are going into it more level-headed. And just a lot calmer since we competed with Colony on the second night we played them…I don’t even think we have played our best game yet. I think fans will see us play our best games up north. I really want to show out for the community of Juneau, and for TM with the school closing just go out with a bang.”

Cailynn Baxter was selected to the All-State Tournament team last season.

“It is far more aggressive,” Baxter said of state. “You need to be tough, physically and mentally tough. I think that is a lot of it…I think when we know a team is better than us, then we play up to their level and then we play better.”

Another challenge is the downtime between regions and 3A/4A State, while 1A/2A State play begins the Tuesday after the Saturday region title games.

“It is a bother,” Lee said. “But I can’t complain about having too much prep time, too much lag time between the tournaments, because I look at the kids from Petersburg who won a region championship on Saturday and were in the second round of the state tournament on Thursday.

“One of the challenges is we do have that 10 days in between,” he said. “I learned you can do too much or you can be too intense, so we cut practice time a bit. We do fun things but still focus on our routine of sticking to fundamentals.”

Lee said the team then adds in layers about their first opponent and withstands temptations to see who would be next.

“There is no allowance for that,” he said. “If you don’t focus on your first opponent, you’ll get bit.”

Film of Dimond has been processed and digested.

“Making it more specific as to who they will be guarding and what the pace will be, and those kinds of things,” he said. “Our kids are students of the game, and we have watched potential opponents in anticipation of going to state since Thanksgiving. We follow the scores, we watch the RPI which is the index that determines seeding at state and who the at-large bids go to. So our kids are pretty well informed.”

On the Falcons side of the bracket, top seed Colony Knights (23-3) plays No. 8 North Pole Patriots (11-9). The Knights have given TMHS two of their three losses, 71-31 and 57-48, in the Falcons gym mid-February. TMHS’ only other loss was to Juneau-Douglas High School: Kalé 42-40. The Falcons closed out their regular season with two wins over the Patriots, 52-48 and 36-31.

In the other half of the state bracket, No. 3 Mountain City Christian Academy Lions (21-3) play No. 6 Service Cougars (18-9) and No. 2 Wasilla Warriors (19-5) play No. 7 Bartlett Golden Bears (16-10).

This season the Falcons defeated Bartlett 52-27, South Anchorage 73-37 and 3A State qualifier Mt. Edgecumbe 54-52, among others, as well as dominating the Southeast Conference.

“We tried to play in as many three-game events as we could this season,” Lee said. “When we went to California, it was three games in three days, same in Anchorage earlier and in Kodiak, three games in three days.”

The Falcons open state in the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Auxiliary Gym near campus, not the main court of the Alaska Airlines Center that teams advance to.

“It is a little bit more like a high school facility,” Lee said. “I think that helps us. Whenever we have gone to Anchorage we have watched the UAA men and women play, we played in the aux gym last year. It is not foreign to us… We try to stay with our eyes on the prize… We have played in it, we toured it, a little bit of the shock and awe will be gone. Doesn’t mean we won’t have butterflies, doesn’t mean the first three minutes of the game will be a little bit amped, but I think we will hit our stride a little earlier just having been there before.”

State play begins Wednesday but the next round, for winners and losers, is Friday.

“That helps us,” Lee said. “Teams that play up-tempo want a break. It is an incentive to work harder for that first win and then come back in the semifinals with fresh legs.”

With the recent Juneau School District decision to consolidate high schools at JDHS this will be the last state trip for the blue, silver and black uniforms of TMHS.

“It is nice to have this trip, with the school closure, to kind of take the edge off,” Lee said of the Falcons’ uniforms being worn for the last time. “We’re focused. We don’t need any added incentive or added emotion. We had a wonderful pep rally, the boys are going, we are on a mission that existed before the political closure.”

Helping Lee on the staff are assistants Jason Wilson, Russ Stevens and Jo Pasion and manager Makaley Johnson.

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