By Van Williams
Alaska Sports Report
The St. Joseph Knights used a suffocating defense down the stretch to suck all the life out of the East T-birds’ offense – and an upset-hungry crowd of 2,500 at West High – in a 46-36 come-from-behind victory in the championship game of the Alaska Airlines Classic.
St. Joseph of Santa Maria, California, trailed virtually the entire game before taking a 35-34 lead early in the fourth quarter on a breakaway dunk by Tounde Yessoufou.
Yessoufou closed it out from there, scoring 10 of his team’s final 13 points, to give the state of California its first Classic champion among the eight schools from the Golden State that have made the trek to Alaska.
“All the respect in the world for East,” said St. Joseph coach Tom Mott. “They are very well coached, great discipline and some incredible athletes.”
The loss snapped East’s 35-game winning streak stretching three seasons. The school’s last lost came on Feb. 8, 2020 to Colony, 45-41.
St. Joseph – ranked No. 15 in California – improved to 19-2 this season and has won 48 of its last 53 games.
Yessoufou, a 6-foot-5 fab freshman, finished with 21 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots in the title game and was named Classic MVP.
A no-brainer, really. The young skywalker was the most productive and most exciting player in the tournament. He led all players with 72 points, 32 rebounds and 12 blocks across three games. He was a showstopper.
For most of tonight’s game, however, the mayor of Dunk City was contained by a combination of East’s Elijah Reed’s defense and foul trouble. Yessoufou picked up his third personal at the 7:25 mark of the third quarter.
“It was tough,” Reed said of guarding a player seven inches taller. “I’ve never played an athlete like that. Just glad he didn’t dominate like he did against everybody else.”
Others stepped in. First, it was Dre Roman. Then it was Luis Marin and Dariah Mensah. When Yessoufou came back into the game he announced his presence with authority.
On defense he anchored the middle and helped put a lid on the basket, keeping the T-birds scoreless for more than seven minutes in the fourth quarter.
“We challenged the guys to do a better job individually on their guys and collectively as well,” Mott said. “One of the big changes was we took Tounde (Yessoufou) and made him a help guy; more of a one-man zone in the key so that any type of penetration will be met by him.”
Twice in the quarter he had emphatic blocked shots. Well, they weren’t blocks so much as spikes as he looked like he was playing volleyball. He was killing East’s hopes of making history.
The T-birds (10-1) were looking to give the state of Alaska its fifth Classic champion in the state’s premier prep basketball tournament that has been held 23 times since 1989.
Early on, things looked good for East. Better than good, they looked great. Alaska player-of-the-year candidate Damarion Delaney scored nine points, including a 3-point bomb that put the T-birds up 13-5.
Delaney was cooking as the team spread the floor and let its top player beat the defense to the rim.
“We knew coming out we had to be very aggressive because they are a good, athletic team. We couldn’t be tentative with what we had to do,” Delaney said.
East held St. Joseph – a team that came to the tournament averaging 75 points per game – to just 5 points in the first quarter. The T-birds played with poise and patience. They stood tall.
Notable Winning Streaks in Anchorage
Against Alaska Competition
63 East girls 2000-2003
51 West boys 2004-2007
37 East boys 1993-1996
*35 East boys 2020-
30 Service girls 1984-1985
In the second quarter, Akeem Sulaiman and Reed hit 3-pointers on consecutive possessions to push East’s lead to 19-9.
When Deshawn Rushmeyer scored on a high-flying offensive tip and Delaney scored on another drive, East’s cushion swelled to 23-11 as the crowd went wild. The East student section started chanting ‘Over-rated.’
“Early, things were opening up within our offense and from there it was really on us if we could be able to make the plays or not,” Delaney said. “We did our best on taking advantage of things when we could.”
Roman, a 6-foot-3 senior, gave St. Joseph a ton of momentum after draining an off-balance, buzzer-beating 3-pointer with Reed in his face to end the first half.
Roman also scored five of his team’s first seven points to open the second half, doing all of damage when the Knights were looking for a spark.
Reed, Kyler Johnson and Daion Doughty all hit 3-pointers to give East a 32-22 advantage. Delaney’s layup off a turnover gave the T-birds a 34-27 lead.
They would score only two points the rest of the way.
“It was hard to score because they played hard, very physical, and they are all very athletic players that play above the rim,” said Delaney, who finished with 11 points. “They are a well-coached team that knew what they wanted and what they were doing.”
Meanwhile, Marin showed off his big-guard post moves and Yessoufou heated up, with his only dunk of the night giving St. Joseph the lead for good at 35-34.
A tough night shouldn’t take the shine off East’s tournament performance, advancing to the final with back-to-back beatdowns and tying West for the most appearances in a Classic title game at seven.
This was only the second loss for East coach Chuck Martin in three seasons and he owns a 73-10 record since 2019 when the former college coach took over the state’s most coveted prep hoops coaching job.
East gets back to Cook Inlet Conference action Tuesday night, so the T-birds won’t have much time to lick their wounds.
“It was a hard loss, but we’re not gonna dwell on it,” Reed said. “We are going to get back to practice and get ready for the next one.”
St. Joseph Knights 5 10 14 17 – 46
East Anchorage T-birds 13 10 11 2 – 36
St. Joseph – Roman 8, Marin 10, Kuykendall 3, Vidor 0, Allen 0, Mensah 4, Yessoufou 21.
East – Delaney 11, Doughty 5, Zimmerman 0, Johnson 5, Sulaiman 3, Rushmeyer 2, Reed 10.
Alaska Airlines Classic MVP
Tounde Yessoufou – St. Joseph (CA)
Luis Marin – St. Joseph (CA)
Xzavier Baker – Dimond
Zach Keller – ThunderRidge (CO)
Elijah Reed – East Anchorage
Jackson Brennan – ThunderRidge (CO)
Deuce Zimmerman – East Anchorage
Luke Johnston – Dimond
Dre Roman – St. Joseph (CA)
Andrew Crawford – ThunderRidge (CO)
Damarion Delaney – East Anchorage