By Van Williams
Classic Media Director
The East Anchorage T-birds dialed up the defense, blocking a dozen shots and holding the Higley Knights of Gilbert, Arizona to just eight points over the final eight minutes, to make history in winning 52-43 on Day 1 of the Alaska Airlines Classic at West High.
Not only did 6-foot-5 Akeen Sulaiman furnish a tournament record eight blocks, but the T-birds beat a Lower 48 team at the Classic for the first time since 2016 and coach Chuck Martin picked up his first Classic win over an Outside team since 1993.
Sulaiman stood tall in the post with nearly double-digit blocks and a game-high 13 rebounds to complement the offensive output from a trio of double-figure scorers. Muhammed Sabally led the way with 16 points, followed closely by Victor Meza with 15 and Axel Carpio with 14. Those three made 17 of the team’s 20 field goals.
East moved to 7-0 this season and advanced to Friday night’s Classic semifinals against high-flying Heritage Christian, one of the top teams from the state of California.
The T-birds got there thanks to a 19-4 run in the first half, capped by a Sabally layup and 3-pointer sequence that made it 23-11. The 6-foot-3 sophomore is the youngest starter for East, which lost five all-state starters from last season’s Class 4A state runner-up team.
Sabally filled those shoes by stepping up. He showcased an all-around game, knocking down 3-of-4 3-pointers and taking the ball to the rack. He also converted a pretty post move off glass.
He was big, Sulaiman was bigger. A key holdover from last year’s team, the junior looks more polished this season and cleaned the glass like a rim protector. These blocks weren’t cheapies, either; he chased down a ballhandler to erase a layup attempt and he even denied a dunk attempt.
Messed around, found out.
Sulaiman’s eight blocked shots broke the previous record of seven set last year by Tounde Yessoufou of St. Joseph (CA).
Still, the Knights of the Pheonix area kept coming, rising from the ashes to cut a 12-point deficit down to 36-35 on Yarell Greer’s free throw at the end of the third quarter.
The game was up for grabs in the fourth quarter and the T-birds swooped in and gained control as Meza and Sabally did all the scoring in a 10-4 run. When Carpio canned his fifth 3-pointer, the lead swelled to 51-39.
Even though East didn’t handle the end of the game well, making several sloppy decisions, Higley couldn’t capitalize; although Noah Gloor tried, scoring eight of his team’s final 10 points.
For the T-birds, this was their first Classic win over an Outside team since 2016, when they beat Pro Vision of Texas 65-62.
For Martin, this was his first Classic win over a Lower 48 team since 1993, when he led a Colony Knights squad that knocked off Lexington Catholic of Kentucky 68-65.
Martin had left the state for more than a decade for the college ranks before coming back and soon after taking over at East, where he has gone 97-11 in five seasons.
Higley 9 10 16 8 – 43
East 7 20 9 16 – 52
HIGLEY – Greer 6, Dabney 5, Bell 0, Danielson 0, Randall 3, Kortas 3, Irving 9, Gloor 13, Sieber 4.
EAST – Carpio 14, Velez 0, Meza 15, Rushmeyer 2, Roberts 0 Cooper 0, Sulaiman 5, Speakman 0, Sabally 16, Tharjiath 0.