Kendra Zeller wasn't going to let her Chugiak hoops career end without a fight.
The Mustangs senior reserve forward almost single-handedly extended Chugiak's season with an explosive second half in the Mustangs' thrilling 36-35 win over East in the opening round of the Cook Inlet Conference tournament at West High on March 3.
Chugiak's Kendra Zeller, left, gets a hug from teammate Jessi McMullen, right, as Erinn Scotland applies a headlock from behind following Chugiak's 36-35 win over East in the opening round of the Cook Inlet Conference tournament at West High on March 3.
STAR PHOTO BY MATT TUNSETH
"I just didn't want the season to end," said Zeller, whose put-back with four seconds left launched the Mustangs into the tournament semifinals.
While that basket was her biggest play, it was far from Zeller's only contribution in the win. She grabbed 10 of her game-high 11 rebounds in the second half and scored five of Chugiak's final seven points during the last two minutes. She also set up Chugiak's only other basket during that span, diving to steal the ball from an East player before passing to Mollie Matthis for a lay-up to put Chugiak up 34-32 with less than a minute to go.
"She played great," said Chugiak coach Ryan Hales.
East led 15-10 after the first half, but Chugiak controlled the third quarter, opening the second half on a 7-2 run to tie things up on a driving Matthis lay-up.
The game featured seven ties and six lead changes, including three in the final 45 seconds.
After the Zeller steal, East tied things up on a basket by Wenda Pole'o. The Mustangs then had a chance to take the final shot, but East's Allison Schoenborn made a steal and passed ahead to Christin Hawk, who was fouled on the break. Hawk hit one of two free throws with 16.3 seconds left to set up the final-second theatrics.
With time winding down, Matthis drove into the lane and fired a short jump shot that clanged off the rim and right to Zeller in perfect position to get the score.
"She blocks out really well," Hales said of Zeller, the team's only senior.
Matthis led all Chugiak scorers with 10 points, while Zeller and Jesi McMullen each finished with seven.
Togafiti Manu scored 12 points and grabbed 11 rebounds for East.
The win was a big one for Chugiak, putting the Mustangs into the CIC semifinals and giving them a chance to reach state with a win in either of their final two tourney games.
Unfortunately, the tournament didn't end as sweetly as it opened for the Mustangs. By advancing to the semifinals, the fifth-seeded Mustangs ran into juggernaut Dimond and conference MVP Keiahnna Engel.
Engel scored 11 points, grabbed eight boards, dished five assists and grabbed eight steals as the Lynx cruised to a 73-31 win on March 4. Dimond opened the game on a 20-10 run and never looked back, cruising into the finals. Sierra Afoa added a game-high 24 points for Dimond.
Chugiak got seven points and seven rebounds from McMullen and four points and five boards from Mackenzie Matthis in the loss, which dropped them into the third-place game on March 5 against Bartlett with the CIC's final state berth on the line.
That's where Chugiak's season finally ran out of gas, as the Golden Bears ended the first half on a 20-5 run and ran away with a 54-37 win.
"I think all of us were just tired," said Mollie Matthis, who had nine points in the loss.
Chugiak shot just 28.6 percent from the floor, including a dismal 4-for-17 in the first half.
"We're still lacking a lot of fundamental skills right now," Hales said.
Kelsey Heller also had nine points and Jessica Tramp added seven points and eight boards for Chugiak, which finished its season 9-16.
Bobbi Britt had 17 points to lead Bartlett.
Despite the setback in the final game, Matthis said she felt like the young team still had a successful campaign.
"I think we did a lot better than people expected us to," she said.
The Mustangs will lose only Zeller to graduation, and Matthis said the team should be a force to be reckoned with next season.
"Next year will be our year," she said.
Contact Matt Tunseth at email@example.com or 694-2727