Aspen boys reach ‘Great 8’ of state tourney |

Aspen boys reach ‘Great 8’ of state tourney

With protection from Lake County forward Kevin Jewell (44), left, Aspen forward Jeff Brence (11) is fouled by Lake County forward Kevin Ruzicka during first half action at the Skierdome Friday evening March 8, 2002. Brence scored the two points and made the free throws. The Skiers defeated the visiting Panthers 62-50 and advanced to the Division 3 playoffs in Colorado Springs. Paul Conrad photo.

Aspen High’s “Dynamic Duo” of Jeff Brence and Nick Farrell combined for 46 points in Friday’s 62-50 state playoff win over Lake County, advancing the Skiers to the Class 3A state tournament at Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.

With offense supplied by Brence, the senior forward, and Farrell, the junior point guard, near-perfect free-throw shooting as well as rabid defense from juniors Phil Salazar and Brett Mufson, Aspen, the No. 8 seed in the 32-team field, withstood a late rally from No. 9 Lake County of Leadville to secure the “Sweet 16” victory at the AHS Skierdome.

“What a win baby! We’re going to the big dance!” said Aspen coach Steve Ketchum. “It’s what every kid dreams about. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of high school basketball players never get to experience it, but we’re living it. I’m so happy and proud of every one of them and their families.”

Friday’s win earned Aspen its first berth to the so-called state tournament, the eight-team Class 3A finals slated for Thursday through Saturday at the Air Force Academy, in four years. Brence was the only current player on that squad, which makes him the first AHS player, boy or girl, to appear in two state tournaments, Ketchum said.

Aspen, now 21-3 on the season, opens the state tourney against No. 1 seed Denver Christian, undefeated at 24-0, on Thursday at 8:30 p.m. Denver Christian, incidentally, edged Aspen by four points in the state playoffs last season, one stop shy of the state tourney.

“If everybody’s clicking on the same night, we’ll beat anybody in the state. No question,” Ketchum said. “But we’re still waiting for everybody, the starters and the role players, to step up together on the same night.

“We’re going down there believing that we can knock these people off and play for the state championship,” the coach continued. “That’s our attitude.”

In Friday’s “Sweet 16” game against Lake County at the Skierdome, Ketchum estimated that 1,000 fans were packed into the gym, making it one of the most frenzied atmospheres in school history.

“It was one of the biggest crowds I’ve ever seen,” he said. “It was three-deep under the baskets, people standing everywhere. A very exciting college-type experience.”

Aspen got off to a slow start as Lake County gained a 16-13 lead through the first quarter. Featuring a “freak defense” in the second quarter, however, with Salazar and Mufson locked onto Lake County’s two top scorers, the Skiers limited Lake County to just 7 points while staking a 9 point lead of their own, 32-23, at halftime.

“We had a phenomenal quarter,” Ketchum said. “The kids worked so hard, and one of our freak defenses worked to take [Lake County’s top scorer, Kevin Jewell] out of the game, which helped us get that halftime lead.”

Aspen got into foul trouble at the start of the third quarter, and Lake County capitalized, cutting the deficit to 41-36 entering the final quarter.

“Lake County cut our lead down to two points with four minutes to go,” Ketchum recalled. “It’s a tough ball game and we call timeout to talk about how smart we want to play. Then we come out and [junior guard] Josh Lackey busts a big three [pointer] to put us up five. It was the only shot he hit all night, but it may have been the biggest. And immediately after at the other end, Nick [Farrell] gets a steal and hits a streaking Jeff Brence for a layup before [Lake County] even knew what happened. So within about ten seconds, we go from up 2 [points] to up 7 and the momentum was in our court.”

Aspen protected its lead by keeping the ball in Brence and Farrell’s hands as Lake County resorted to fouling to try and get back in the game. Aspen answered by sinking 10 of 12 free-throws in final minutes.

“We’ve talked about it all year, about keeping the ball in our best free-throw shooters’ hands when it’s close late in the game,” Ketchum said. “And we finally did it and that’s what iced the game for us.”

Brence finished with a game-high 25 points, followed by Farrell with 21. Salazar netted 11 points, and grabbed a “ton of rebounds,” Ketchum said. Salazar also limited Lake County’s Jewell to 21 points, including just 5 in the first half.

“Phil Salazar’s playing like we’ve wanted him to play all year,” the coach said. “He’s become our third guy behind Jeff and Nick, and he was the key to shutting down their big guy. They only had one guy in double figures, so we’re happy with that.”

Lackey finished with 3 points, and Mufson added 2.

“We’re starting to click. We’re understanding what we want to do and what we do best. Phil’s doing the right things, making power moves inside and playing tough on the boards, Jeff and Nick are doing what they do best, scoring, and Brett’s looking to get the ball into our scorers so his assists are way up, and our role players are playing really, really solid.”

In Aspen’s opening state tourney game against Centauri on Thursday, Ketchum said all the pressure will be on Centauri, last season’s state tournament runner-up. For one, Centauri’s coach, Dick Katte, the winningest coach in the history of Colorado high school basketball, announced that he will be retiring following the season. Additionally, Centauri is undefeated and heavily favored.

“There’s tremendous pressure on his kids,” said Ketchum. “This is Katte’s swan song and they want to win it all for him, and also because they’re supposed to win it all as the No. 1 seed. But my feeling is that they’ll crack under the pressure and we’re going to help them.

“Nobody really thought we were capable of getting to the state tournament in the first place – myself, the players and other coaches from around the league. But as the season went on, our confidence started to grow, and we started thinking maybe it was possible, maybe it can happen. And now, I’m seeing our kids peak at the right time.

“We’re going to play with no fear,” the coach continued. “We have nothing to lose. We’ve already achieved more than anybody thought possible, so we’re playing hard and loose, and we’re letting it all hang out. The pressure is all on Denver Christian.”

Aspen plans to travel to Colorado Springs on Wednesday.

“We’ll be well prepared. We’ve got a game plan we think will be very effective and if our kids play well, our kids will be in the hunt to knock them off,” he said. “I have tremendous confidence in our group, and I’ve let them know that.”

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