Aspen boys heading back to Great 8
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN ” Aspen’s chances of returning to the Great 8? A slam dunk.
Andrew Papenfus drove through the lane, soared to corral a in-bounds pass and slammed the ball home with two hands in the third quarter of Saturday’s 3A state tournament regional final against No. 5 Buena Vista. He brought the home crowd to its feet and put the top-seeded Skiers ahead for good.
The junior guard’s aching knee held up ” and so did Aspen’s state title chances. The Skiers overcame lackluster play and a five-point halftime deficit, holding the Demons to just four points in the third quarter, and 12 in the final 16 minutes. Papenfus scored 16 points, including four clutch 3 -pointers to key the comeback, and Aspen pulled out a 53-43 victory.
The win clinches the Skiers’ second-consecutive regional crown and another trip to Fort Collins. Aspen (23-1) will square off with No. 3 Faith Christian (23-1), a team that derailed the Skiers’ title hopes in last year’s state semifinals, on Thursday at Moby Arena.
“Woo!,” Skiers head coach Steve Ketchum yelled repeatedly as he strolled through the locker room, a strand of net hanging from the breast pocket of his blazer. “The history books are changing here at Aspen. What was once a dog program is now becoming a state powerhouse. … I’m thrilled to death. You’re going to see me smiling a lot.”
That was not the case during a tense first half in which the Skiers looked out of sorts. Guard-laden Buena Vista broke the Aspen press at will and picked apart the Skiers’ half-court defense with precision passing, back-door cuts and timely offensive rebounding.
The Demons (14-1) lead, 31-25 at halftime. Guard Josh Morgan led the way, connecting three times from beyond the arc in the second quarter.
“I have to admit, I was nervous for a while there,” Ketchum said. “We didn’t do anything we had planned at the start of the game. At times we forgot to press … we didn’t cover the basket and didn’t move our feet. … Buena Vista passes so well and is so quick and hard to guard.”
Aspen needed a lift. Papenfus, who was visibly limping on a brace-covered right knee that he injured in practice Tuesday and later admitted he was in pain, provided just that.
Moments after he and fellow junior Matthew Holmes hit back-to-back 3’s with 5:20 remaining to give the Skiers a one-point lead ” their first since the opening minute of the second quarter ” Ketchum called for a familiar out-of-bounds play.
“I got a big smile on my face,” Papenfus said. “The guy who was guarding me said, ‘Watch 23. Watch 23.’ I faked and went past him, and the pass was perfect.”
“We had that in [the playbook] for a while, but we never ran it that well,” Ketchum added. “He got up there and rammed it down their throat. He snuffed the life right out of them.”
The acrobatic dunk highlighted a third in which Aspen outscored punchless Buena Vista, 17-4. Reserve Zack Babich closed out the quarter in dramatic fashion, hoisting up an awkward 3-pointer from the corner at the buzzer that bounced high off the rim, then rattled in to give the Skiers a 43-35 lead.
“Our main emphasis [at the half] was just on defense,” Papenfus said. “The first half was one of the worst halves we’ve played this year. … We made a few switches and came out with a lot more intensity. And the crowd was amazing.”
After a long first half sent sitting on their hands, the Aspen fans were on their feet often during the final quarter. Walker Abrahamovich scored underneath off a nice feed from the wing, then Trevor Watson dealt the decisive blow, scoring in transition off a perfect half-court feed from Holmes to stretch the lead to 53-41 with less than two minutes remaining.
Abrahamovich finished with 11 points and Watson, who was saddled with foul trouble for much of the game, added eight for the Skiers. Morgan, who was shadowed relentlessly by Walker Moriarty and Devin Kahn in the second half, finished with 14, while teammates Ryan Allen and Larson Greenfield combined for 18 for the Demons.
Now, Aspen is heading back to Fort Collins ” and looking for redemption against Faith Christian.
The Eagles, the defending state champions and Colorado’s top team for much of the year before faltering in their district tournament, cruised past Brush and Salida in regional play.
“I would’ve liked to save it for Saturday’s night’s [state championship] game, but we have to play them anyway,” Ketchum said. “They’re scary good. I think sometimes we’re the same way.”
For more on Saturday’s game, check back in Monday’s Aspen Times.
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