Sometimes, home court advantage can make all the difference.
If this weekend’s sweep against Haines, Alaska, is any indication, Yukon’s Arctic Winter Games basketball teams look like they may be a serious threat in Kenai in March.
Taking advantage of a rare opportunity to play teams of their own age and skill level, Basketball Yukon invited Haines to bring both their boys and girls varsity high school teams for some friendly competition.
After dropping two of three games in Haines last weekend, the boys’ squad came out strong at FH Collins for the rematch.
Friday night’s 84-67 win was a good confidence booster for the boys’ team, and it went on to rout Haines 90-46 on Saturday after it found its rhythm. Strong play from captain Dave Pederson and Arctic Games’ veteran Jared Hogan was key.
“Our emphasis was getting the ball to the rim right off the bat, setting the tempo,” said Jamie Shaw, coach of the boys’ team. “Once these guys get their confidence going, they become a very difficult team to stop.”
This time around, however, they faced a somewhat less ferocious Haines team, as four starters couldn’t make the trip from Alaska.
“They’re a really good team, and they made us work hard, even though they’re missing a couple of starters,” said Yukon point guard Tony Nguyen after Saturday’s match.
The girls’ games were a little closer, with strong performances from veteran Amanda Brown and guard May Nguyen, it won 66-53 on Friday and squeaked out Saturday with a 61-60 win.
“We had a 30 point lead at one point, and they had a pretty strong comeback,” said Mark Hureau, head coach of the girls’ team.
With a comfortable lead, Hureau wanted to flex some different team muscles.
“We experimented a bit. That didn’t work out the way we wanted.”
The feisty Haines team got very aggressive, and started to dominate in the second half.
“We pulled off the press when we were up, and that was the result,” said Yukon guard May Nguyen.
The girls’ team has been playing regular games against a local women’s team, but Hureau said Haines offers a closer approximation of the teams they’ll face at the Arctic Winter Games.
“We hadn’t faced a team that could really press us,” he said. “Our goal this weekend was to press a fast team, and have a fast team press us.”
“It’s the style, the women don’t play the style that we’re going to face from kids our own age. They play a smarter, slow-down style that we just can’t match yet.”
The boys’ team spends most of its time scrimmaging, with a few older guys thrown in for some challenge.
Most players from both teams come from local high schools, and are more used to playing against each other than toward a common goal.
“It going to help us a lot, we’re just trying to get our team to work as one,” said Tony Nguyen. “We have to talk more, get better chemistry. Once we get that, we’ll be a team.”
“These five games against Haines have really helped us,” said Shaw. “One of the things I wanted from the series was for our guys to face some intense Alaskan competition, you really can’t duplicate that with the high schools here.”
“Haines has 84 kids in their high school, and the team they put on the floor is impressive, it’s a testament to the culture there, that basketball is important,” said Shaw.
Alaska has a long history with basketball, a culture that supports it, and a much larger population to draw from.
Because of those advantages, the state agrees to a handicap for the Arctic Winter Games. Its team is made up of players under 17, while Yukon, NWT, Nunavut and Northern Alberta (who won’t bring a team to this years Games) can use players under 19.
There’s no easy victory however, and the coaches dismiss any notion of an uneven field.
“For us, in the Yukon, that rule isn’t much of an advantage, because we don’t have many kids that are under-19 here,” said Tim Brady, president of Basketball Yukon and former Arctic Winter Games coach. “A lot of those kids are gone to university.”
Shaw agrees, and added that the Alaska team is basically an all-star team of players from a sizable state league.
“They know how to play, they’re well coached. They’ll be ready to play,” he said.
Brady, who led the boys’ team to Arctic Winter Games gold in 2000, is positive about the Yukon’s chances this year.
“I have a feeling both of our teams will have a chance to make the final and do well.”
With a month to go, the coaches are buckling down for some serious practice.
Shaw sums it up. “We’re working on everything, refining our offence and defence. Being a little more intense. We’re a work in progress.”