Aspen slides in fourth quarter
AIR FORCE ACADEMY – Fourth-quarter foul trouble knocked the Aspen High School boys basketball team out of championship contention Thursday night in the opening round of the 3A state basketball tournament near Colorado Springs.The most successful team in AHS history, thanks to its 21-4 record, will now enter the fight for the tourney’s fifth-place title after a 51-44 loss to the No. 1-seeded Denver Christian team.”We had them until the end,” said junior forward Phil Salazar. “We had a couple things at the end that just gave the game away.”Aspen, the No. 8 seed, traded shots with undefeated Denver Christian in the last quarter, and AHS trailed by only two points with 1:52 left. However, three fouls in the last 30 seconds of the game gave Denver Christian a chance for a 5-of-6 effort from the foul line as the Crusaders walked off the court with the victory to advance to the Class 3A final four. (For boys and girls state brackets, see page 30-A.)”To beat a great team, you have to play great, and we did not play great,” Aspen coach Steve Ketchum said. “We didn’t shoot well. We didn’t handle the ball well. We had way too many turnovers, particularly in crucial points in the game.”AHS kicked off Thursday’s game with an early lead. Though the Skiers lost their hold on the tip-off, a block by Salazar gave his team control of the ball as well as the first quarter. A foul sent Aspen senior Jeff Brence to the foul line to pick up the team’s first points of the game, followed by a jump shot and a free throw from Salazar.The Skiers had built a seven-point lead before Denver Christian managed a scoring glut that tied things up early in the quarter. By the end of the first, Aspen wrangled a mere 15-13 lead as junior Josh Lackey sank a 3-point bucket at the buzzer.Salazar entered the second quarter the same way as the first, sinking his team’s first shot of the period. Denver Christian answered with two buckets and two trips to the free-throw line, earning their first lead of the game, 20-17. The Crusaders maintained control through the half, though Aspen trailed by only one point, 24-23.The teams traded baskets in the third quarter, with junior Nick Farrell attempting to counter Denver Christian senior Andy Draayer’s 3-point barrage with a few shots of his own. Farrell’s last attempt of the quarter found its mark, and a follow-up by Brence gave AHS a five-point boost. A last-minute shot by Lackey saw AHS trailing by one point yet again, 39-38.But fourth-quarter shooting shut down any chance for a comeback for the Skiers.Ketchum credited an outstanding effort by Denver Christian, the runner-up in last year’s state tournament and now, at 25-0, the 2002 tourney favorite. However, Ketchum also cited AHS’s loss of offensive momentum in the fourth quarter.”We had a chance to pull off an upset – what would have been the biggest upset of the tournament – but you have to play really great to do that, and we didn’t do it when we had to,” he said.”But I have to give my kids credit,” Ketchum continued. “They competed hard, and I’m very proud of them. Jeff Brence played with the flu – he’s on day three or four with a major flu – in the end, we’re still here against the best team in the state, with a chance to win, so obviously, we did some good things.”AHS now moves to the state tourney’s “consolation” round as they compete for the fifth-place title. First up, the Skiers will face Eagle Valley – a team AHS faced twice already this season – at 1:15 p.m. today, also at Air Force Academy.Ketchum said he hopes to see a better result from this latest matchup. During the team’s first meeting with Eagle Valley, AHS salvaged a 70-69 win, but a late-season contest resulted in an 81-66 Eagle Valley win.”They really played a great game against us the last time we played them,” Ketchum said. “Hopefully, it’s our turn.”Salazar seemed confident after Thursday’s loss. When asked if the Skiers would fit in some practice time before the afternoon game, he replied: “Not really. We’re pretty much ready for them.”
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U.S. Ski and Snowboard announced in a Wednesday news release that the Jeff Shiffrin Athlete Resiliency Fund will provide financial awards to 44 athletes across all disciplines.