The Yukon junior boys basketball team was undefeated heading into Wednesday’s game against Alaska.
Four straight victories, (over NWT, Nunavut, Alaska and NWT again) put Yukon at the top of the preliminary round standings, and most likely secured them a spot in Friday’s gold-medal game.
But with two more round-robin games to go, the team didn’t want to lose its rhythm before the final.
Wednesday’s game started well, with Yukon leading by eight points at halftime.
Tim Steele Beaver and Dave Pedersen led the team in scoring, and strong playmaking from Wes Liang kept Yukon on top.
The young and speedy Alaskans came out firing in the second half, sinking smooth lay-ups and several baskets from three-point land.
Yukon was knocked back on its heels, and couldn’t bring the game back under control.
“We started sagging on defence, and you cannot allow a team like this to shoot the ball,” said Yukon coach Jamie Shaw. “They’ve got some outstanding shooters that will make shots with hands in their faces.”
A combination of unfocused defending and some overzealous rebounding ended with Yukon players colliding with each other in the paint, leaving an easy basket for the Alaskans.
The last five minutes were a desperate rush, the teams going end-to-end, but Yukon couldn’t sink their baskets. Alaska took it 77-72.
“A very disappointing finish. We stopped playing our game,” said Shaw. “There’s no doubt, they got rattled at the end there. The emotion of the game can sometimes get them away from how they should be performing.”
Shaw said his team’s playing has been up and down all week, and that in Wednesday’s game, it finally caught up with them.
“All we can do is learn from it,” said Pedersen.
“It’s been a challenging week, but we’re in a very good position. We’re in the gold-medal game, and we expect to win it.”
Yukon will need its strongest players to step up and dictate the flow of the game.
Steele-Beaver is averaging 15 points a game, and sits third in tournament scoring with 74 points. Pedersen is right behind with 73, and Sina Kazemi is in sixth spot with 65 points.
“Those guys have been scoring at will, and Tony Nguyen been controlling the tempo for us very well,” said Shaw.
“The level of competition here is very high,” said Alaska coach Mike Adams. “Our guys have to work on that hard, physical style of play that Yukon and NWT bring to the court.”
A testament to the raw talent of the Alaskans is the fact they only started playing together on Sunday, coming from various high school teams from Nome to Sitka, while Yukon players have been practising together since October.
Alaskan players are younger; the state plays with an age restriction of 17 years in the Arctic Winter Games to help even out the field for smaller regions.
Yukon will play either Alaska or the scrappy NWT squad for the gold.
“We’ve been successful thus far, and I hope they are enjoying it,” said Shaw.
The Yukon girls are having a bit of a harder time, with just one win in five games as of Wednesday, when they lost their second game to Alaska 61-44.
Things started on the wrong foot for the girls, when they lost a heartbreaking opener against NWT on Monday.
“We were down by 18 points, then we were up, and then lost by three,” said co-captain Janna Tait. “I think that took a lot out of us. ”
Injuries and illness haven’t helped them either. Co-captain Amanda Brown sprained her ankle during Wednesday morning’s game against NWT, and she’s out for the rest of the games.
Brown, a skilled playmaker and the veteran player on the team, said she was disappointed to be ending her Arctic Games career watching from the bench.
“She’s got the experience and she’s a great player, it was really tough on our team to lose her,” said Tait.
Tait is nursing some sore ribs herself, after crashing into the stands during the same game, but will continue playing. “I’ll tough it out.”
“Janna is our MVP for the tournament so far,” said coach Mark Hureau. “Rebounding, scoring, doing a little bit of everything.”
Point guard May Nguyen has managed to post impressive numbers, (second overall in the tournament with 60 points, averaging 12 per game) while playing sick.
“The first couple of games I felt great,” she said. “Now I get really short of breath. I can’t run like I want to, like there’s a rope holding me back.”
“It’s frustrating, we want the gold as much as anyone else here,” said Nguyen.
Tait thinks the team has plenty of ability; it’s just some bad luck and a lack of experience that holds them back.
“It’s hard, because we have so much potential,” she said. The next Winter Games will be better.
“Five of these girls will be back for the next Games, so you never know.”
The girls will most likely face Nunavut for the bronze medal.