Aspen boys win, advance to semifinals
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
FORT COLLINS ” Tommy Rittenhouse buried the 3 ” and Yuma.
With 1 minute, 50 seconds to play in Thursday’s hotly-contested 3A state tournament Great 8 against Yuma at Moby Arena, the guard found himself all alone in the near corner on an in-bounds play. Without hesitation, the senior made his one field goal count, sparking a 7-0 run to help Aspen seize control of the game.
The Skiers (23-2) withstood a late rush from the Indians and Denver University-bound forward Justin Coughlin down the stretch to win, 50-46, and clinch the program’s first appearance in the state semifinal. They’ll square off with Faith Christian, the state’s top team, Friday at 5:30 p.m. (Check aspentimes.com after the game for the outcome.)
“I was surprised, but I can understand why they’d leave me a little open,” Rittenhouse joked. “It feels so good.”
Aspen was lucky to escape with this victory ” its 21st straight. After opening the game with a 9-0 run, they hit a lull midway through the second quarter.
Second-seeded Yuma closed the first and opened the second quarter with a 12-2 run to square the game at 14. After 16 minutes, and with star Cory Parker saddled with three fouls, Aspen trailed by 26-19 at the half.
“We worked so hard to get here,” he said. “There’s no way we were going to let Yuma come in here and ruin this for us.”
After Yuma opened the third with a score on the offensive glass, Skiers senior Brian Westerlind scored in transition, then Coughlin was whistled for a technical for hanging on the rim. Parker scored eight of Aspen’s next 10 points, his last two coming on an acrobatic drive in the lane that tied the score at 31 midway through the quarter.
The two teams exchanged leads three more times in the third and headed to the fourth deadlocked at 35.
“All you ask for is a chance to win it,” Aspen coach Steve Ketchum said, “then bingo, it happens.”
When 6-foot-9 Couglin picked up his fourth foul and went to the bench with 7:07 remaining, Aspen senior Michael Taylor connected on consecutive possessions in the paint to stretch the Aspen advantage to four.
Coughlin was quickly reinserted and scored in transition and on a runner in the lane to knot the score once more. The 3A player of the year candidate finished with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting.
After Parker nailed two free throws, the Indians beat the Aspen press for an easy lay-up, prompting an Aspen timeout with 1:50 remaining.
It was Rittenhouse’s time to shine.
“You never leave a great shooter open that much,” Ketchum said. “It was a defensive error, and [Rittenhouse] put the dagger in their heart.”
“Tommy picked a heck of a time to come out of his slump,” Parker added.
And Aspen picked a great time to put together one final run. After Rittenhouse’s heroics, Parker finished underneath for two of his 21 points, then Taylor went up strong for the dunk, giving the Skiers a 48-41 advantage with less than one minute remaining.
The strong Aspen contingent was forced to sweat it out in the final seconds, however. Daren Spencer finished underneath with 21 seconds remaining then, after Rittenhouse missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Coughlin pushed the ball up the court and launched a 3 from the left wing. He made the shot, pulling the Indians to within two, and was fouled by Rittenhouse with 6.7 seconds remaining.
After a timeout, Yuma opted to intentionally miss the free throw and attempt to grab the offensive board. Parker spoiled that strategy when he soared to secure the ball with two hands before being fouled.
He strolled to the line and confidently sank two free throws to stretch the lead to 50-46 and all but seal the game.
“We knew it’d be close and anticipated it would come down to the last few possessions,” said Parker, who finished with 21 points and five rebounds. “We came up big at the end.”
The win assures that the 3A Western Slope will be represented in the state semifinals. The Basalt girls and Roaring Fork tried and failed to advance earlier Thursday.
Aspen’s work is far from over, Parker said. Next up is Faith Christian.
“We’re going to have to play the game of the year,” he added. “I don’t show that much emotion until I’m satisfied and know we’re at the top. We’re getting there.”
Despite being a big star, Norway’s Henrik Kristoffersen has frequently connected with the young AVSC athletes while training at Aspen Highlands over the years.