This wasn’t supposed to be East’s year.
After losing five all-state senior starters, the T-birds should have been forced to rebuild. Not reload.
Then again, this is East, a legacy school with a tradition unlike any other.
Buoyed by sophomore Muhammad Sabally’s team-high 20 points and clutch free-throw shooting in the late stages, the T-birds on Saturday night snatched their record 18th state championship with a thrilling 53-48 win over West Valley in front of a crowd of 4,000 at the Alaska Airlines Center.
A year ago, East lost the title game on a buzzer beater to snap a 52-game in-state winning streak that dated back three seasons. Senior guard DeShawn Rushmeyer remembers well the night his heart was ripped out.
“It was a terrible feeling,” he said. “That was my motivation to get here like we wanted to. My family, my friends, they all motivated us to get here. We’re under the big lights, you know, it’s an amazing feeling to be able to pull it out and avenge our seniors from last year because to see them in a depressed state was no fun at all. To reward them with this, it’s a good feeling.”
East used a 13-0 run in the second quarter to help construct a 19-point cushion before hanging on for dear life after withstanding a furious fourth quarter rally by the Wolfpack led by player-of-the-year Stewart Erhart.
Erhart scored a game-high 25 points, including six in a 14-second span at crunch time. He converted a three-point play and on the next possession swished a 3-point shot to pull West Valley within 52-48 with 23 seconds left.
The T-birds (24-5) sealed the deal by sinking 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch, securing their second state title in three years under coach Chuck Martin.
“Oh my God that’s my man,” said East senior Xyo Velez, who played for East’s 2021 state championship team before leaving for West and then transferring back this season. “This is exactly why I came back. I just had to play for Chuck my last year.”
Of East’s 18 state titles, 14 were won by legendary coach Chuck White, two by Martin and one apiece by Geno Morgan and Josh Muehlenkamp.
This was East’s record 29th appearance in the state title game since 1960. With that reputation, winning isn’t optional; it’s a requirement.
“I don’t know if it’s because we’re East High,” Martin said. “I think what happens with us is the young kids have a lot of expectations and sometimes that can be good and sometimes that can be bad.”
Under Martin, it’s been mostly good times. He moved his record to 116-18 with two state titles in five seasons at East, the most coveted coaching job in Alaska.
So many East title teams over the decades have run opponents out of the gym, but this 2023 version likes to slow it down. One thing that has never changed, however, is the T-birds’ pressing defense. They forced 17 turnovers in Saturday’s title game to fuel a transition game that helped produce 56% shooting on a 17-of-30 clip.
This was only West Valley’s third loss in 54 games across the last two seasons.
“They are a tough team to beat,” said East senior Axel Carpio.
Erhart came out cooking as he poured in 12 points in the first nine minutes as the Wolfpack (26-2) took a 13-12 lead.
It wouldn’t last. The T-birds answered with a 13-0 spurt, keyed by three consecutive 3-pointers, two from Sabally and one from Akeem Sulaiman (9 points). Then Victor Meza came off the bench to score all nine of his points in the final 4:35 of the first half as East took a 29-16 lead into halftime.
Erhart did not score over the final seven minutes of the first half, thanks in part to the defense of Rushmeyer.
“I felt DeShawn did an amazing job,” Carpio said. “That’s the two-time Gatorade Player of the Year.”
Sabally stood tall in this matchup. After scoring 12 points in the first half, he started the third quarter with an and-1 and later hit two free throws that pushed East’s lead to 39-20.
At that point, everything was going the way of the T-birds. Take the time a post feed to Sabally sailed over his head but LaRon Roberts was there to save the day, grabbing the loose ball and laying it in while tip-toeing the sideline. Three minutes later Carpio canned a 3-pointer at the buzzer to end the third quarter and give East a 42-28 lead.
Erhart and Co. made a run late to make things interesting, slicing a 19-point deficit all the way down to 4.
East used a four-corners offense for much of the fourth quarter to burn time, much to the dismay of the boo birds. Without a shot clock, the T-birds played this to their advantage.
Meanwhile, West Valley kept pecking at the lead. The Wolfpack got points from five different players in the final frame.
In the end, though, East made its free throws and that made all the difference.
In the days following a devastating loss to Dimond two weeks ago in the Cook Inlet Conference Championships title game, the T-birds held a player’s only practice.
“We knew we had to get better and stuff because it’s going to come down to free throws at the end of a game, so we just have to make them,” said Sulaiman.
They did, making 7-of-8 in the final 1:41 and going 14 for 20 overall. Sabally was 6 for 9 and Velez went 4 for 4 inside the last 55 seconds.
“I have prepared my whole life for this moment right here,” Velez said. “It’s just a game at the end of the day. I don’t fold under pressure. I just keep it calm, act like nobody is around me and just hit those free throws. We shoot hundreds of free throws every day in practice.”