FAIRBANKS—For the first half of the Joe T. Classic championship game on Saturday, the Monroe Catholic Rams held Barrow freshman Kamaka Hepa in check.
The 6-foot-7 forward was held to seven points as the Rams built a 29-23 halftime lead at Lathrop High School.
Hepa scored 22 of his game-high 29 points in the second half as the Whalers completed a come-from-behind, 56-49 win over the Rams, who are ranked No. 1 in the Alaska Association of Basketball Coaches Class 3A poll.
“Our coach got us together in the locker room, got us all together, got us focused then,” Hepa said of halftime. “We did what we had to do.”
Hepa gave the Whalers, ranked No. 3 in the Class 3A poll, their first lead of the game with 7:03 left in the fourth quarter. Hepa hit a 3-pointer to cap a 13-1 run by the Whalers that erased a 13-point deficit.
“It feels good,” Hepa said of the win. “And it gives us a lot of confidence going into state, man.”
Hepa finished with 15 of the Whalers’ 17 points in the fourth quarter, including scoring Barrow’s final six points to seal the win.
“We’re just excited that we won and hopefully we can continue our streak,” Hepa said.
Hepa was 9 of 11 from the free-throw line while also hitting two 3-pointers.
In the three games at the Joe T. Classic, Hepa compiled 63 points. He scored 16 points against Lathrop in the tournament opener before scoring 18 against West Valley on Friday.
“In the second half, we didn’t do a good enough job of staying in front of him,” Rams head coach Frank Ostanik said by cellphone. “We just allowed him to get comfortable. You can’t allow great players to become comfortable.”
Sione Tuai added 10 points for the Whalers, who outscored the Rams 33-20 in the second half.
“We just didn’t display the mental toughness down the stretch,” Ostanik said. “That’s my responsibility to instill in our kids. I did not do a good enough job preparing my guys mentally for those last eight minutes.”
The loss is the first for the Rams against an Alaskan school since February 2013 against Anchorage Christian School.
The Joe T. Classic is the second tournament that the Whalers have won this season. Barrow, which finished 3-0 in the Joe T. Classic, won the T-Bird Classic at East Anchorage High School in December.
The Rams, who were looking for their second straight tournament title in as many weeks after winning their Mt. McKinley Bank Holiday Classic, led by as many as 10 points during the game.
“We committed silly fouls, and we didn’t compete at the level necessary on the glass,” Ostanik said. “And then we just had some defensive breakdowns. All things that are correctable.”
Monroe held a 10-point lead with 3:16 left in the third quarter.
The Rams, who were led by Jalon McCullough’s 13 points, scored the game’s first seven points and controlled most of the first quarter.
“We were kind of a little too excited,” Hepa said of the first quarter. “And yeah, we were nervous. Definitely nervous.”
Seven of McCullough’s 13 points came in the first half.
“I’m bothered that I wasn’t able to get our guys to mentally execute down the stretch,” Ostanik said.
Edwin Erickson and Conor O’Kelley-Ault each added nine points for the Rams.
Rose Mongoyak scored 14 points as the Barrow girls downed Monroe 67-29.
Alaina Wolgemuth added 12 points for the Whalers, who led 34-18 at halftime.
Andi Clark led the Rams with 14 points, 12 of which came in the first half.
Contact sports reporter Tim O’Donnell at 459-7583. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.