Feb. 12—What was widely believed to be the best matchup of the week in boys high school basketball action in the Last Frontier was anything but tightly contested on Friday night when Bettye Davis East Anchorage (15-1) blew out Service (13-6) by nearly 20 points in a 57-40 victory on their home court.
"I thought we played pretty and executed better tonight," East coach Chuck Martin said. "I thought we got to the rim early, executed against that zone early and knocking down threes ... It was really about the defense and rebounding."
Both teams came into the highly anticipated rematch riding winning streaks with the Cougars having won seven of their last eight games since their narrowly falling to the Thunderbirds last month. East, meanwhile, the defending 4A state champions, have yet to lose to an in-state opponent this season with their lone loss coming to St. Joseph of California at the Alaska Airlines tournament.
East opened the game with 8-0 run and held Service scoreless for nearly five minutes before junior Toby Howard got his team's on the board with his first bucket of the night at the 3:09 mark in the opening period. Their dominating defense was the key to their success all night, sparked their offense, and maintained their double-digit lead after going up 14-4 heading into the second quarter.
"We played great, came out strong hitting a few threes, got stops, and just tried to get everybody involved and get stops on the other end to create opportunities for our offense," East senior Akeem Sulaiman said.
By halftime, the Thunderbirds had more than doubled up the Cougars on the scoreboard with a 32-13 lead at the break. Senior Laron Roberts was vital to their defense with the way he consistently forced turnovers including an impressive five steals in the first quarter alone.
"We love Laron and I can't take him off the floor because he plays so hard and is so tough," Martin said. "We can look past some of his offensive deficiencies because he doesn't look to score."
Roberts is often assigned to guard the opposing team's best ball handler and his teammates describe him as "very scrappy."
"This is a normal night for him," Sulaiman said. "He has about 60 steals already this season."
Service showed some more fight in the second half and was able to reduce the deficit to 15 points by the end of the third quarter and get within 13 points early in the fourth before East clamped back down on defense and pulled away for good.
"Tonight wasn't an extraordinarily well-played game by us in terms of a lot of shots going in, but I thought we were really good defensively, and we didn't have too many turnovers," Martin said. "We didn't turn the ball over when the game was in the balance."
The Thunderbirds had a pair of senior record double figures in scoring with Sulaiman leading the way with 20 points followed by Michael George with 15 points. Sulaiman was especially impactful on both ends of the court with the way he knocked down shots from medium and long range on offense and blocked them on defense.
"When you have a guy like Akeem in the back of the defense where nothing is easy at the rim, you have the best rebounder in the state, the best shot blocker in the state, and we have Leron out front," Martin said.
When Service tried to put up a wall around the paint and make it harder for the East to attack the rim throughout the game, Sulaiman was still able to fight through for layups and pulled up from behind the arc and mid-range when he couldn't.
"They really broke us down in the (last) game," he admitted. "We just watched a lot of film, we studied, and we really broke their defense down and were hitting shots more in the second half than we did in the first game."
After sinking a pair of early three-pointers in the first quarter, his confidence was soaring and he continued to take off from there.
"It gave me a lot of confidence, but I was really just trying to get to the rim and did more in the second half," Sulaiman said.
As commanding as their overwhelming victory over the Cougars was, the Thunderbirds believe that there is still an even higher level of execution and production they can reach and know they are capable of.
"This is a good win but there are a lot of games left to be played," Martin said. "This puts us in really good shape right now. We're trying to just take it one game at a time and we've done a pretty good job of that this year. I think we're finally doing a better job of finding out who we are."