PHS sophomore Anneka Steen looks inside midway through the fourth quarter in the team's 35-31 win over Metlakatla (Alaska) on Wednesday afternoon. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

KETCHIKAN, Alaska — Driving 260 miles in a rented van and flying 668 miles via commercial airline over a 10-hour period the day before, the Philomath High girls basketball team appeared to be off its game a little in its opening-round game at the Clarke Cochrane Christmas Classic.

The team’s opponent in the opener, Metlakatla, appears to be about 90 minutes from Ketchikan with a ferry ride in the travel equation.

Philomath won the game, 35-31, but had to work out some rust in the early going. And that involved more than just travel, coach Ben Silva said.

“I’m not one for excuses but it was a long travel day yesterday and we haven’t played, haven’t really practiced much since (the Dec. 15-17 tournament at Marshfield High),” Silva said. “We’ve had almost a full week off, so I think that showed up a little bit. But we missed some shots that we definitely would like to have made.”

But a win is a win and the Warriors are moving on to the semifinals for a 4 p.m. Thursday game against Barrow, which had a bye in the first round.

Sophomore Anneka Steen had a game-high 10 points in the victory.

“It’s still the beginning of the year, so we’re working into it,” Steen said about the team’s early-season level of cohesiveness. “We can all work together and come together as a team.”

Through this early part of the season, Philomath has relied on its defense. That was the case again in the win over Metlakatla.

“I think every single one of our games this year is going to be a close one,” Silva said. “For the most part, we do a pretty good job on the defensive end and that keeps us in games. As long as we can continue doing that and find a way to score a few points on the offensive end or at least get shots at the basket, we’ll be alright.”

Philomath tied the game on two occasions but never held the lead through the first half. Their shots seemed to be avoiding the net with a lot of balls bouncing around and off the rim. As a result, Metlakatla — often referred to locally as “Met” — held an 18-14 lead.

“We talked a lot about energy at halftime,” Silva said when asked about the halftime message. “Met came out and they’re a tough, tough team and have a lot of energy. They were getting all of the loose balls and we weren’t getting close to those 50-50 balls. So we talked about that a lot at halftime.”

Silva’s message got through to the players.

Said Steen, “We just needed to come out with enough energy,” Steen said. “We need more energy during games.”

Silva also brought up the team’s lack of aggressiveness on offense in the first half.

“We talked about being strong with the basketball and not being soft,” he said. “We also talked about the transition — we saw that they didn’t transition defensively all that well.”

Philomath (4-4) took its first lead with 3:10 remaining in the third quarter on a free throw by senior Abigail Brown — that coming after Steen had tied it up 41 seconds earlier.

Steen scored again at 2:47 and then after Metlakatla buried a 3-pointer to tie it up, junior Ahnika Tryon hit a 3-pointer of her own to give the Warriors a 24-21 advantage going into the fourth quarter.

Philomath picked up some breathing room in the first 40 seconds of the fourth with freshman Emily Taunisila and Brown both scoring for a seven-point lead. Philomath later led by as many as nine with 5:18 remaining when Brown scored inside.

Taunisila left the game seconds later when she suffered a shot to her face. Her status for the team’s next game is uncertain.

Metlakatla (2-1) didn’t go away quietly down the stretch. The Miss Chiefs went on a 5-0 run to get back to within four with 4:04 left. Steen scored on a fast break at the 3:20 mark and sophomore Aspen Russell hit a free throw at 1:52 but those would be Philomath’s final points of the game.

Metlakatla buried a 3-pointer with 1:44 left to get back to within four and had opportunities at the foul line only to miss four straight.

The result in the end was positive, but did Silva see what he wanted in the second half?

“I felt like we did better in those areas,” he said. “We were going to get out and run a little bit on the offensive end to get some buckets but yeah, we did better.”

Steen cited hard work and communication as keys.

“We find ways to grind and ways to get new looks with more talking on defense and communicating,” she said.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.