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Aspen’s state title hopes dashed in Great Eight opener

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim RyanAspen guard Matthew Holmes drives to the basket during Thursday's 3A state tournament Great 8 game against Faith Christian in Fort Collins, Colo.
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FORT COLLINS, Colo. ” In a fit of frustration, Faith Christian guard Joel Hegarty slammed the basketball to the hardwood before tossing it to a referee.

The reigning champions were flustered. Aspen dealt the first blow in Thursday’s battle between top-five teams at Colorado State University’s Moby Arena, jumping out to an early 15-5 lead in the opening game of 3A’s Great Eight. Eagles fans scattered around the court sat in stunned silence.

Momentarily, at least. After Hegarty sank the second of two free throws with 5 minutes, 45 minutes to play in the second quarter, third-seeded Faith Christian took advantage of the break in the action to set up its full-court defense.

The Skiers were caught off guard. The smothering pressure produced four Aspen turnovers and eight Eagles points during a one-minute stretch. The barrage highlighted a 12-0 run that helped Faith seize the lead.

The Eagles would not trail again. They strung together seven straight points to break open a tight game in the third quarter and cruised to the 64-53 victory, overcoming a sensational game from Skiers forward Trevor Watson and derailing top-seeded Aspen’s state title hopes for a second straight year.

“We handled their knockout punch early, then they exposed some of our weaknesses,” Skiers head coach Steve Ketchum said. “Their athletes were coming full-blast … It was like pulling a finger out of a dam and the whole thing gushes.”

Aspen (23-2) knows the feeling well. It hit just two free throws in the first quarter of last year’s state semifinal against Faith Christian (24-1) and trailed, 26-2, after nine minutes in a 52-34 loss.

The Skiers proved they belonged this time around, largely because of Watson, who scored nine of his team’s first 11 points. The senior missed just two of 10 shot attempts in the first half, and finished with 26.

“It was kind of crazy out there. I’ve never done anything like that before,” Watson said. “We knew we could hang with them. We came in knowing that.

“I guess we just got too comfortable.”

Walker Abrahamovich finished on the offensive glass, then Watson bulled his way into the lane for two in the opening minutes of the second to quell a short Faith rally and give Aspen a nine-point cushion at 21-12. Hegarty then hit two free throws, and the Eagles opted to pick up the pace.

Jordan Stone picked off an errant Skiers pass on the ensuing possession and scored, prompting Ketchum to call a timeout with 5:30 remaining and insert more ball handlers into the lineup.

“I could see the choke or whatever you want to call it,” Ketchum said. “I tried to settle them down.”

Nothing worked.

Faith scored four straight times in transition before Aspen could even cross half court. The Eagles converted 13 first-half Skiers turnovers into 17 points.

“They were all trapping and coming from behind,” Aspen guard Matthew Holmes said. “They were flying around. … You don’t see pressure like that until the state tournament. You can’t mimic that speed.”

“We started turning the corner in the second [quarter],” Eagles coach Andrew Hasz added. “I do think we have a speed advantage. … We graduated a lot of players but the young guys we have are probably a little faster than last year’s group. They were able to create some opportunities for us.”

And generate momentum. The Skiers closed to within one at the break when Watson beat the buzzer with a 3 from the wing, but it was clear the Eagles’ swagger had returned as they jogged toward the locker room.

Faith, the state’s top-ranked team for much of the season before slipping up against Kent Denver in district tournament play, stretched the lead to four in the opening minute of the third when Riley Grabau absorbed a bump and completed a three-point play. Shortly after, it broke open the game with seven straight points ” a 3 from Hegarty, who finished with a team-high 15, and two buckets from Justin Gallagher.

Watson pulled Aspen to within four when he hit two free throws with 3:03 remaining, but Hegarty answered with a long 3 on the ensuing possession. The 6-foot-2 junior took a Skiers defender off the dribble in the final seconds of the quarter and converted an acrobatic scoop shot as he slid to the floor to stretch the lead to 54-44 heading to the fourth.

“Their skill level across the board is amazing. They bring guys off the bench and they don’t miss a beat,” Ketchum said. “Nobody in the state can make that claim. … They’re a freakin’ machine.”

The Eagles were content to play keep away in the last quarter, and converted four of five free-throw attempts in the final two-plus minutes. Aspen could pull no closer than nine down the stretch.

While Watson came up big for the Skiers ” “He played like a man possessed,” Ketchum said ” he had no supporting cast. The Aspen bench contributed just four points and Watson, one of four starters averaging double figures, was the lone player to score more than eight.

Four players scored 11 or more for Faith, which shot 60 percent in the second half. The Eagles were 4-of-5 from the free throw line in the game’s final 2:26, sending the Skiers to an early Great Eight exit for the second time in as many years.

Aspen’s run is not over yet. The Skiers will square off with fellow 3A Western Slope member Coal Ridge in today’s consolation bracket semifinals. The Titans lost to Eaton on Thursday night.

“We still have a shot to win fifth place in state,” said Ketchum, whose Skiers finished fourth in 2008. “If someone told us that before the season, we would’ve laughed at them.”

“We still have our heads up,” Holmes said. “We have two games to go and we’re going to finish as best we can. That’s why we came here.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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