Hoops: Aspen boys outlast Cowboys
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The Aspen boys basketball team looked every bit like the regular-
season 3A Western Slope champions in the opening minutes Wednesday night.
Down the stretch, however, the Skiers looked more like a inexperienced junior varsity squad, prompting typically reserved head coach Steve Ketchum to slam his dry-erase board and chide his players during one break in play.
Aspen did enough to win its district tournament opener against Gunnison – but not much else.
“I’m blaming UFOs,” Ketchum joked afterward. “In this case, it was an invasion of the body snatchers. Instead of them taking over our bodies, they came in and sucked our brains out. … That was probably the worst any team I’ve had at Aspen played at the end of a game with all those mental mistakes.”
The Skiers squandered a comfortable lead and struggled mightily to both control the ball and work the clock down the stretch against a game Cowboys squad. Some key baskets from Jake Nugent, Trent Lichtenwalter and Austin Roark helped Aspen escape with a 60-56 victory, however, and secure a berth in the district semifinals.
The Skiers will take on Coal Ridge, a 47-42 winner over Grand Valley, at 8:15 Friday night at Palisade High School. Roaring Fork and Rifle will square off in the other semifinal.
“I’m proud of the guys because we won, which really is all that matters this time of year,” Ketchum said. “I think (the crowd) was thrilled that we made it very interesting at the end. We made the game very close. It didn’t have to be.”
Added Roark: “Every once in a while you’ll have those games where things just aren’t clicking. We just weren’t focused. That’s definitely something we’ve got to change.”
Aspen (16-4) sure looked focused at the outset. Roark erupted for 10 points in the first quarter, showcasing his shooting range and ability to dominate the paint, helping fuel a 13-2 run in the game’s first six-plus minutes.
In what would become a common theme, Cristian Aguilar shook free and buried two 3-pointers, pulling Gunnison to within six heading to the second.
The senior connected from long distance again shortly before halftime, sparking a 6-2 run to cut into what was a nine-point Skiers lead.
Aguilar led all scorers with 24 points – 11 of which came during a tense final quarter. He hit six 3s.
Aguilar’s last basket came with 1 minute, 40 seconds remaining in the fourth, when he drove to the basket, absorbed a bump and finished off a three-point play, pulling the Cowboys to within four.
Roark stretched the lead to six when he chased down an offensive rebound and scored, but a string of head-scratching Aspen turnovers kept Gunnison within striking distance. During one 30-second stretch, a Skiers pass bounded off the top of the backboard, then a player was whistled for a backcourt violation.
“We just made stupid mistakes. You don’t need to score when you’re up six – we were throwing the ball away on the fast break when we could’ve just pulled it out,” said Lichtenwalter, who finished with seven points.
Added Ketchum: “It didn’t matter what we said, what the strategy was. When you’re up with two minutes to go, why do you need to go down and jack up a shot? Why make a pass when you’re not sure if the guy’s open? It scares me, because if this happens again against an even better club in a bigger game, it’s over. If this happens at state, it’s over.”
Roark finished with 22 points, Nugent added 17 – 11 in the fourth – and Quinn Morehead pitched in with 11 for Aspen, which now has won four straight.
Next up: a battle with a Rams team the Skiers beat by 10 and nine points in two regular-season meetings.
“It’s do-or-die time, and we know everybody is going to come out fighting. It all comes down to focus,” Roark said.
Added Lichtenwalter: “We just have to stay mentally steady, make no dumb mistakes. We all know what we’re supposed to do.”
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Aspen Mountain opened for the season on Wednesday, a day earlier than originally planned. Top-to-bottom snowmaking, a solid recent storm and well-behaved guests made for a great experience despite all of the extra precautions.