ASPEN - The Skiers turned to a trusted friend Friday night.
The Aspen High School boys basketball team used a smothering defensive effort to shut down Gunnison, and the Skiers closed the regular season with a resounding 49-29 win over the visiting Cowboys.
"Our defense has been our mainstay all year," Aspen head coach Steve Ketchum said.
"The kids play pretty darn hard on defense."
The Aspen defense held Gunnison to single-digit scoring in three of the four quarters, giving up only 10 points in the other period. Mixing in an an aggressive, scrambling zone defense, the Skiers frustrated the Cowboys into a 20-14 halftime lead.
Limiting the Cowboys to only five points in the third quarter, the Aspen boys eased ahead to a 35-19 lead. A 15-5 run in the third put the game out of reach.
"We try to save it (zone defense) for when we really need it," said Ketchum, who usually calls for man-to-man defense.
"It works for us on occasion, when we are playing really hard and playing together," the Aspen coach said.
The Cowboys, who hoisted a bushel full of 3-pointers, managed to hit only three all night.
"Trent (Lichtenwalter) did a really nice job on the offensive end," Ketchum said of the Aspen junior who scored eight quick points in the first period.
He had 12 by halftime and finished with 16.
"He (Lichtenwalter) was making some moves. Finishing at the rim. And we got him some good passes," Ketchum said after the Skiers improved to 16-3 overall, 14-2 in the Western Slope League. The Aspen boys are ranked No. 8 in Class 3A this week by The Denver Post.
"It's our offense that doesn't click very good sometimes," Ketchum said.
"We seemed to miss some easy shots around the rim."
One shot that didn't miss was a thundering dunk by junior Clayton Crawford early in the third quarter on a perfect alley-oop pass from teammate Evan Patzoldt.
The crowd-pleasing slam started a 15-3 run for the Skiers, including a 3-pointer from the corner by Crawford, another basket by Lichtenwalter, a driving layup by Patzoldt and a jumper from senior captain Daniel Schwartz, the Skiers' leader.
Crawford also scored 16 points for the Skiers.
Senior Taylor Henschke added six points in his final regular-season home game.
Senior Josh Baker also made a return to the lineup Friday night.
"Josh needed this. He's been out three weeks," Ketchum said. "He's really rusty. He's got to get back in the groove. We need him for the playoffs."
T.J. Curry led Gunnison (6-12 overall, 6-9 in league) with seven points.
Alex Schliesman added five for the Cowboys, who are scheduled to play at Basalt Saturday.
The Skiers, likely the No. 2 seed for the upcoming Western Slope League Tournament, will host a first-round tournament game on Thursday.
The semifinals and championship will be Friday and Saturday at Palisade High School.
"It's all about how your finish, and we hope to finish strong," Ketchum said.