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Mountain City Christian girls basketball team uses third quarter surge to rally past Grace Christian and keep historic win streak alive

Jan. 17—The Mountain City Christian Academy girls basketball team is still getting used to a new name, head coach and life without star guard Sayvia Sellers. Despite all the turnover, the Lions have been able to carry over and maintain one constant: winning.

The two-time defending 4A state champions found themselves in unfamiliar territory Tuesday, trailing reigning 3A champion Grace Christian at halftime in the opening game of the 2024 Alaska Airlines Classic girls tournament at West High. But the Lions recovered from a shaky start to extend their historic win streak against Alaska competition to 127 straight with a 54-44 victory over the Grizzlies.

"It feels good to keep winning because everybody keeps doubting us," MCCA sophomore guard Keelie Kronberger said.

The Lions trailed by five points at the end of each of the first two quarters and entered halftime down 24-19. They came firing out of the gates in the third quarter, outscoring the Grizzlies 17-2 to take a 36-26 lead into the fourth.

"The first half was a slow start and we're still feeling out what offenses work for us," Mountain City head coach Alexia Novelli said. "We have such a long athletic team that I don't think most high school girls teams have, so trying to learn how best to use that has been good."

The key halftime adjustment the Lions made on defense was making a switch to their full-court press.

"We wanted to start a little bit slower defensively and then go into our regular press in the second half," she said. "That definitely energized us."

Grace Christian had numerous opportunities to get on the board in the third quarter but between Mountain City's defensive adjustments and Grace's inability to get shots to fall and finish layups, the Grizzlies were in jeopardy of being beaten heading into the final eight minutes.

"We had a good talk at halftime and said we just needed to keep our energy up because we were kind of down in the beginning and kind of underestimated them," Kronberger said. "When we heard (their fans) cheering super loud, we knew we had to bring our best."

Junior Sophie Lentfer was able to drive into the post for a layup in the final two seconds of the quarter to end the drought. Her bucket gave the Grizzlies some momentum as she scored 10 of her game-high 19 points in the fourth period.

"Sophie is a great kid on and off the court, and we tried switching her around with some of our best defenders but she is big, can post up, shoot the 3, and take it to the rim," Novelli said. "She is a very versatile player and really fun to play against."

Kronberger was one of two Lions that reached double figures in scoring and led the team with 16 points. She also played well on defense and tied for the team lead in steals with four. Whenever Mountain City needed a bucket or turnover, she was often there make the crucial play.

"I just had to step up because we weren't really working as a team together," she said. "I felt like it depended on me on some of the buckets when Maliyah (Alex) and Morgan (Maldonado) were subbed out."

Kronenberger credits their improved energy level for the Lions' ability to keep their composure in the fourth quarter when Grace Christian tried to mount a furious comeback.

"We knew we wouldn't lose if we just brought it together," she said. "We'd get the win."

The Grizzlies were able to cut the Lions' lead to just six points a couple times in the final quarter including in the final minute with 35.4 seconds left to play. Grace Christian was forced to foul and sent Maldonado to the free throw line twice and she knocked down all four attempts, finishing with 13 points. She also tied Kronenberger for the team lead in steals with four of her own.

"You can always count on Morgan to get us in the last minute with those free throws and drawing a foul," Novelli said. "She was super sick today and it was tough for her to get in it, but she is very reliable and consistent. Those last few free throws really put us over the edge."

[With Sayvia Sellers' reign over, Alaska girls 4A basketball has more title contenders]

While the win extended Mountain City's state record streak, it marked the first loss for Grace Christian since Jan. 6, 2023, snapping a 31-game streak.

"It feels good to stay undefeated just because nobody really believes in us and they're such a good team that it feels even better to get the win," Kronberger said.

In the second game of the first day of the girls round-robin tournament, West freshman Wednesday Bithow scored a game-high 18 points to lead the Eagles to a 58-37 victory over two-time defending 2A state champion Tikigaq.