Coal Ridge gives Aspen boys a scare in district opener
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – Coal Ridge boys hoops coach Paul Harvey joked that the Titans might be the most talented ninth seed in 3A Western Slope history.
No. 9 made a believer out of No. 1 in Wednesday’s district tournament opener.
Coal Ridge kept pace with heavily favored Aspen in the opening half, then closed the third quarter with a flurry to square the game at 36 – much to the delight of a spirited Titans cheering section that made the gym feel more like Peach Valley.
The Skiers (20-0), who were rarely tested en route to completing a perfect regular season, quieted the ovation, however. They opened the fourth quarter with an 11-0 run and, on the strength of a 29-point effort from Andrew Papenfus, pulled out a 63-44 win.
They will take on Grand Valley, a winner over Roaring Fork in other action Wednesday, in Friday’s district semifinals at Palisade High School.
Survive and advance.
“Now you know why I’ve been scared and nervous the last few weeks,” a relieved Aspen coach Steve Ketchum said. “This is a great wake-up call.”
Few expected the Skiers to face any major roadblocks until next weekend’s regionals. Few gave the Titans, a team that Aspen clobbered, 76-44, on Saturday, much of a chance Wednesday.
They were mistaken. Coal Ridge (5-16), likely buoyed by a lopsided win Monday over Cedaredge and armed with a new strategy for slowing the Skiers, made things uncomfortable for the home bench for 24 minutes.
“We had a game plan to slow things down and take care of the ball. It kept us in the game,” Harvey said. “If we got over the hump [in the fourth quarter], you never know what could’ve happened.”
Nathan Terrin nailed a 3, then Andy Smedra scored in transition with 3 minutes, 40 seconds remaining in the third quarter as the Titans trimmed a nine-point halftime deficit to four. Later, Smedra converted on a strong drive to pull Coal Ridge to within one at 34-33.
After Papenfus answered with a finish off the glass, Titans sophomore McCade Cox launched a desperation 3 from the corner that rattled home as the buzzer sounded, tying the game and causing the Coal Ridge bench to erupt.
“Two things: Coal Ridge played great. They did what they needed to do. And there were moments where our kids, for several minutes, freaked out,” Ketchum said. “Our best players, our superstars, were all throwing the ball away without any pressure on them. [The Titans] sat in a 2-3 zone, and we handed the ball right to them.
“Our role players did not step up and contribute anything.”
But Papenfus and Matthew Holmes sure did. The backcourt duo, likely each other’s biggest competition for Slope player of the year, helped propel the Skiers in the opening minutes of the fourth. Holmes knifed through the defense and scored after two Coal Ridge turnovers, then Papenfus drained a 3 and picked off a pass and scored in transition to give Aspen a 43-36 lead.
Harvey immediately called a timeout. The momentum had shifted, however.
After a defensive stop, Papenfus shook free for a score underneath, then Zack Babich converted after Holmes alertly fed the post to stretch the lead to 11.
Eight of Holmes’ 15 points came in a final quarter in which the Skiers outscored the Titans, 27-8.
“They were on the verge of getting beat up, but they played great down the stretch,” Ketchum said. “We’re happy to get out with a win. Any win in the playoffs is a good win.”
For that, the coach can thank Papenfus. While the rest of his team struggled mightily in the early going, the senior kept Aspen in front. He scored 17 of the Skiers’ first 22 points – including eight straight during a two-minute stretch in the second quarter – showcasing some deft touch from beyond the arc and an ability to take defenders off the dribble.
Papenfus scored eight points in the deciding quarter to finish with a career-high 29.
Terrin finished with 15 – including all 12 of his team’s second-quarter points – and Smedra added 13 for Coal Ridge.
“I don’t think we were nervous. We played them two times and won big in both, so I think we came in a little cocky,” Papenfus said. “It’s the playoffs now, and anyone can get upset on any night.
“We needed a game like this. We’re going to have games like this from now on. We’re going to be down by six instead of up six … and we have to be able to keep our composure.”
Aspen did just that when it mattered most.
“They’re No. 2 in the state for a reason,” Harvey said. “We gave them all we could.”
The Titans will need to win their next two games to nab the Slope’s fifth and final playoff berth. The Skiers, meanwhile, are two victories away from locking up a third-consecutive regional title and an all-important opportunity to host a four-team regional. Aspen has won all five home regionals, but lost all six on the road during Ketchum’s 11-plus year tenure.
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Basalt went 11-5 in the shortened regular season and finished a mere fourth in the Class 3A Western Slope League behind Moffat County, Gunnison and Delta. Then the Longhorns were the No. 21 seed in regional play that only includes 24 teams, but still shook up the bracket with a pair of big upsets.