Home Sport Prep Hoops: Muhammed Sabally leads East back to title game after top-ranked T-birds fend off No. 3 Monroe Catholic

Prep Hoops: Muhammed Sabally leads East back to title game after top-ranked T-birds fend off No. 3 Monroe Catholic

Prep Hoops: Muhammed Sabally leads East back to title game after top-ranked T-birds fend off No. 3 Monroe Catholic

East’s Michael George goes in for two. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Virtually invisible well into the third quarter, East boys basketball star Muhammed Sabally revealed his true colors when it mattered most Friday night.

The Cook Inlet Conference Player of the Year took over during a late-game run that propelled the No. 1-ranked T-birds to a 45-39 win over third-ranked Monroe Catholic in the Class 4A boys state tournament semifinals at the Alaska Airlines Center.

Defending state champion East (27-1) extended its winning streak to 18 games overall and 29 games against in-state competition dating back to last season.

Sabally, a 6-foot-4 junior swingman, pumped in seven points during a 12-7 fourth-quarter string that carried the T-birds back to the state title game for a third consecutive year.

Monroe Catholic had erased a six-point deficit to take a 34-33 lead on Armani Smith’s drive before East put its foot down, closing it out behind the 1-2 punch of all-state studs Sabally and senior Akeem Sulaiman.

“We just tried to keep the energy up and not get down because it’s a game of runs, so we tried to keep our heads up,” Sabally said.

ASAA/First National Bank Alaska
Class 4A Boys State Tournament
At Alaska Airlines

#1 East Anchorage 45, #3 Monroe Catholic 39
Thunder Mountain 48, #2 Service 45
#5 West Anchorage 69, Palmer 62
#4 West Valley 57, Wasilla 42
10:30am Fourth Place Game
#5 West Anchorage (19-10) vs. #4 West Valley (22-5)
10:30am Third Place Game
#3 Monroe Catholic (21-6) vs. #2 Service (21-9)
7:30pm Title Game
#1 East Anchorage (27-1) vs. Thunder Mountain (21-9)
# ASR/Class 4A Coaches Poll rankings

Sabally scored 13 points and Sulaiman added 11 points and 10 rebounds while guard Michael George netted nine points.

Down the stretch, Sabally and Sulaiman combined for 18 of East’s final 22 points as they flexed their postseason chops and showed why they are the state’s most formidable combo.

Sabally’s offense is what makes him stand out, however, it was his defense that provided the biggest play of the game after he picked Smith at midcourt and raced in for a layup to make it 37-34 with 1:01 to play.

From there, East made 8-of-10 free throws to seal the deal and hold off a hard-charging Rams squad that stood toe-to-toe with the best team in the state.

Monroe’s Jeff McCullough puts it in reverse with Muhammed Sabally defending. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

The game pitted two former college coaches in East’s Chuck Martin (Masters, Liberty) and Monroe’s Frank Ostanik (UAF). No surprise, their winning brand of basketball mirrors each other, reflecting discipline and toughness.

Nothing came easy Friday night. Every possession was a slugfest, every shot contested.

“I knew I was going in for a root canal,” Martin said with a smile. “Frank does an incredible job. It’s stressful on me, but it makes me a better coach.”

Together, they make Alaska hoops better. Monroe moving up to 4A has been a shot in the arm for the Mid Alaska Conference and provided a boost to the state tournament because Monroe plays with no fear and doesn’t stop going hard until the final horn, resulting in great playoff games.

This was the second straight year the Rams lost a nailbiter in the final four at state since moving up to 4A, showing that the pieces are there for this Fairbanks program to challenge for the throne.

Monroe has built a reputation for outworking opponents and running a methodical offense that can drive a defense crazy. The Rams extend possessions with motion, forcing teams to guard for long stretches; too long for some, but that’s life without a 35-second shot clock.

“They’ve got three really good guards, and it makes them really hard to go against,” Martin said. “You have to match their discipline. You have to match their toughness to have a chance to beat them, and I thought in the second half we did that.”

Monroe Catholic’s Armani Smith lets one fly. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Monroe’s Jett McCullough pumped in three 3-pointers and finished with a game-high 16 points. He knocked down a 3 followed by two free throws from Smith as the Rams held a 14-9 lead early in the second quarter.

“Except for McCullough we did good job guarding the other guys at the 3-point line,” Martin said.

East’s unsung hero was defensive standout Laron Roberts, who shadowed shooters and clogged passing lanes to go with four rebounds and two steals.

East seized a 17-14 lead on George’s pull-up jumper and back-to-back 3s from Kharmello Delaney and Jal Tharjiath. George’s learner off glass made it 21-17 early in the third quarter. Gavin Cortez scored all eight of Monroe’s points in the quarter and matched Smith’s total with nine points.

The teams exchanged buckets and forced ties at 21, 23, 25 before Sabally got cooking to put East ahead 31-25. Monroe stormed back to take a 34-33 lead on Smith’s layup, but it didn’t last.

East’s Jal Tharjiath goes up for a layup. Photo by Stephanie Burgoon/Alaska Sports Report

Sulaiman, a 6-foot-3 guard, converted an offensive rebound putback with a one-hand tip in traffic to put the T-birds ahead for good at 35-34. Moments later, Sabally picked Smith at center court and raced in for a dagger of a field goal, the last one East put in the bank before the free-throw parade started in the final minute.

East moved into Saturday’s state title game against unranked Thunder Mountain, which knocked off No. 2 Service in the semifinals one day after upsetting No. 4 West Valley.

“I’ve been saying for the last few years how much respect I have for Coach Blasco and the talent they have,” Martin said of Thunder Mountain. “They’ve got two fabulous basketball players who can really shoot and really score, and it’s going to be a tremendous challenge but we’re looking forward to it.”

MONROE (39) – Smith 9, Cortez 9, McCullough 16, Malamute 3, Snow 0, Mavencamp 0, Trieglaff 0, Williams 2, Oleson 0, Washburn 0, Wentz 0, Bast 0.
EAST (45) – Contreras 0, George 9, Johnson 0, Roberts 0, Delaney 3, Riek 0, Sulaiman 11, Ozuna 0, Carson 0, Sabally 13, Deng 2, Tharjiath 7.
Monroe Catholic 6 11 8 14 – 39
East Anchorage 7 12 12 14 – 45

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