With stellar half-court defense, Grace Christian girls top Barrow to repeat as 3A state champs

Mar. 24—Even after winning the 3A state title last season, Grace Christian girls basketball coach Pete Johnson knew his team could get better.

Johnson identified the Grizzlies half-court defense as the chief area for improvement, and on Saturday, that work paid off.

Grace Christian used stellar half-court defense to limit an explosive Barrow team, taking a 35-27 win at the Alaska Airlines Center to win a second consecutive Alaska 3A girls basketball championship.

"This year we really focused on defense in the half-court set," he said. "You can press people, but you can't press everybody. If you play good half-court defense, even if you can't score a lot of points, you still have an opportunity to win."

Grace Christian limited Barrow to just 11 points in the first half and the Whalers didn't score more than nine in any individual quarter.

"To hold a program like Barrow to 27 points, with the shooters they have — they're a great team," he said. "For us to be able to do that, hats off to the girls."

Neither team was able to get a lot going on offense in the first half, short of Grace Christian guard Ella Boerger. Boerger scored 14 points, including a run of 10 straight in the second quarter.

She hit a 3-pointer from the left wing with 4:28 to play in the quarter, making it 15-6. Another 3-pointer from the same spot on the next possession put the Grizzlies up 18-6. And she scored a layup in transition to give Grace Christian its biggest lead of the game at 20-6.

"I have great teammates, so while (their defense) was focusing on (teammate) Sophie (Lentfer), I was open and able to hit the shots," she said.

After a long drought, Barrow made a run late in the second quarter, running off five straight to make it 20-11 at half.

While Barrow battled back in the third quarter with some excellent defense of its own, the Whalers were never able to put together an extended run on offense.

"When you're playing Barrow, their crowd is a huge factor," Boerger said. "When they go on a run, the momentum they get from the crowd really helps them so just focusing on stopping them is huge."

[Barrow girls basketball team honors late coach at state tournament]

The Grizzlies' scoring was extremely consolidated with only Boerger, Lentfer (13 points) and sophomore MJ Van der Horst (5) getting in the scoring column.

Barrow's leading scorer was senior point guard Kiara Burnell with seven points. Burnell was also a dynamo on defense with seven steals.

"We knew they'd want to run and they'd want to get steals and fast breaks," Boerger said. "We knew we had to slow them down in the half-court and make them take time on offense."

Barrow continued to chip away at the Grace Christian lead throughout the second half. Heading into the fourth quarter, they only trailed 26-20. With just under four minutes remaining, Burnell's free throw cut the Barrow deficit to 28-26. But that was as close as the Whalers could get as the Grizzlies pulled away in the final minutes.

"These girls have a lot of heart," Barrow head coach Nicole Smith said. "They love the game of basketball. They love each other. This is a family we've built. We've built something special here. So we knew that we could do it, it was just gonna take a lot of hard work and aggressive defense, which we did. Ultimately, we couldn't score enough points on the other end."

Lentfer also added a game-high 10 rebounds and was a chief ball-handler late in the game as Barrow continued to ratchet up the pressure.

"They started to double- and triple-team the ball," Johnson said. "Luckily, we have girls who can handle the ball."

After surprising some teams en route to the state title in 2023, the Grizzlies returned their entire roster and this year have only one senior — Olivia Jones.

"We're still young in regards to high school basketball," he said. "Our basketball IQ is growing all the time, and it's games like this that help you grow that."

3A Basketball Tournament

At Alaska Airlines Center


3A girls all-state tournament team

Shannel Kovalsky, Monroe Catholic; Aiga Unutoa, Barrow; Tess Anderson, Mt. Edgecumbe; Ella Boerger, Grace Christian; Madison Dill, Sitka; Allie Alexie, Bethel; Kiana Burnell, Barrow; Leila Church, Monroe Catholic; Carliese O'Brien, Mt. Edgecumbe; Sophie Lentfer, Grace Christian.



Mt. Edgecumbe 75, Homer 39

Monroe Catholic 56, Bethel 25

Barrow 74, Sitka 48

Grace Christian 56, Valdez 19



Sitka 60, Homer 32

Bethel 38, Valdez 36


Grace Christian 36, Monroe Catholic 24

Barrow 58, Mt. Edgecumbe 45



Sitka 56, Bethel 53


Third place

Monroe Catholic 51, Mt. Edgecumbe 49


Grace Christian 35, Barrow 27