Aspen boys bury Cards, improve to 16-1 |

Aspen boys bury Cards, improve to 16-1

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jordan Curet Aspen Times

ASPEN ” Aspen guard Andrew Papenfus’ first two shots Friday night were off the mark. Still, Skiers head boys basketball coach Steve Ketchum urged the junior to keep shooting.

Papenfus’ shots started falling. Visiting Grand Valley had no answer.

On a night when one of the Skiers’ standouts was neutralized and another was saddled with foul trouble, Papenfus relished his role as the top offensive option. He scored seven points in the second quarter to help Aspen erase an early deficit, sparked a 9-0 run in the third with a 3-pointer from the wing and hit three key free throws in the game’s final 1 minute, 6 seconds. In a battle between two of 3A’s top teams, the Skiers (16-1 overall, 13-1 3A Western Slope) prevailed, 52-44, sweeping their season series with the Cardinals (12-4, 9-4) and maintaining their stranglehold on first place in the 3A Western Slope.

“I got in rhythm and had a lot of open looks,” said Papenfus, who led all scorers with 20 points. “Matt [Holmes] was coming off a big game at Basalt [on Tuesday], so they were putting pressure on him all game. I had to take the load off Matt and help my team in any way I could.”

While Papenfus and the rest of the Skiers struggled to find their rhythm, Grand Valley dealt the first blow. Tyler Radel nailed a 3 on the Cardinals’ first possession, fueling an 8-0 run in the first two-plus minutes that forced Ketchum to burn a timeout.

Aspen, ranked third in the Rocky Mountain News’ latest hoops poll, responded. Zack Babich shook free underneath for an easy lay-in, then Anderson Cole absorbed a bump, drew a foul and finished off the glass with 4:29 to play. The junior’s free throw bounced off the back of the rim, but Papenfus alertly crashed the glass, pulled down the rebound and finished, trimming his team’s deficit to two. The Skiers trailed, 10-9, after eight minutes.

After Grand Valley’s Landon Paskett scored after an offensive rebound and Derek Witt nailed a long 3 in succession in the first minute of the second, Papenfus answered with a 3-pointer from the corner to pull Aspen to within three at 15-12. He finished twice in the lane in the final 1:30 to knot the game at 19 heading to halftime.

“It never feels good to be down 8-0. It was a little nerve-wracking,” Ketchum said. “The kids were faced with adversity early, but they didn’t fold, they didn’t panic and they didn’t choke. … We had a great defensive effort and were able to crawl back in the second half. It was exhausting for us.”

In the opening minutes of the third quarter, the Skiers took control. Walker Abrahamovich nailed a short jumper in the corner on the opening possession of the second half, then Trevor Watson, who scored 11 despite battling foul trouble much of the night, completed a three-point play. After Cardinals center Dalton Penner scored underneath, Papenfus hit a 3. Seconds later, Holmes picked off a pass and scored in transition.

Abrahamovich exploited his size advantage to finish twice in the lane, and Aspen’s lead ballooned to 33-23 with less than five minutes to play in the quarter.

“We had to do everything right to have a game like we did, but they’re just too big for us,” Grand Valley head coach Mark Cowan said. “Their size creates horrible problems for us.”

So did the Skiers’ ball-hawking defense. Aspen shut off the driving lanes and pressured Cardinals ball handlers all the way out near midcourt. While Grand Valley struggled to generate consistent open looks, Radel and William Waugh connected from deep in the quarter’s final four minutes to cut the Skiers’ lead to five heading to the final quarter.

The Cardinals hit an ill-timed drought in the fourth, however, connecting once from the field in the quarter’s first six minutes. Aspen capitalized.

Papenfus buried a 15-footer, then Cole rattled home a jumper of his own in the first two minutes. With 5:28 remaining, Abrahamovich spotted up for a long 3 in transition, eyed Cole underneath, faked the shot and fired a perfect pass into the paint. Cole made the bucket and completed a three-point play, stretching the lead to 10 at 43-33.

After two Cardinals free throws from Coltan Cowan, who finished with 11 points, Papenfus again connected from long distance.

The Cardinals could pull no closer than seven the rest of the way.

“Papenfus had a great night,” Mark Cowan said. “If he had been a little off, we obviously would’ve had a better shot. … We played much better than last time, but they were just too tough.”

Grand Valley dropped its first matchup with the Skiers, 55-41, on Jan. 10. In the eight games leading up to Friday, the Cardinals went undefeated, won four games by double digits and even cracked the Rocky’s hoops poll.

Friday, they couldn’t keep pace with an Aspen squad that has rebounded from Feb. 7’s 21-point loss to Coal Ridge with two impressive wins. In doing so, the Skiers maintained their 1 1/2-game lead over the Titans in the race for the Slope title.

“Coming off that Coal Ridge game, we were disappointed. … [Tonight] was a big statement,” Papenfus said. “To control the second half was big, and let us know we can play with anyone. I think we’re back on track.”

Aspen hosts Roaring Fork at 7 p.m. Friday, then closes out the regular season one day later at Cedaredge.

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