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Parker, top-seeded Aspen heading east

Jon MaletzThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN Nothing but net.In the final home game of his career and with his team’s season hanging in the balance, Aspen’s Cory Parker came up arguably as big as he has all season. Parker scored 30 points – 13 in the fourth quarter- and the top-seeded Skiers overcame a sluggish first half and fourth-seeded Salida’s potent transition game Saturday to pull out the 56-39 sub regional championship victory. The Western Slope is alive and well this postseason. Aspen (20-2), the Basalt girls and Roaring Fork boys all clinched berths in next weekend’s Great 8 at Moby Arena in Fort Collins. The Skiers will square off with second-seeded Yuma, a winner over No. 3 Peyton on Saturday, in Thursday’s regional final. Game times were not released Saturday.”For the seniors it was the last time we’ll ever play in this building. It got kind of emotional,” Parker said. “It’s great to leave this place [with a win] like that.”Salida hardly made things easy for the Skiers, who were never challenged in Friday’s opening-round rout of Bennett. The Spartans closed the first quarter with six straight points – four coming in transition – then took an 18-17 lead less than three minutes into the second quarter. Salida had little trouble breaking Aspen’s full-court press and turned multiple missed Skiers’ shots into easy transition buckets.”They had a walk-through this morning and figured out ways to beat our press,” Parker said. “They hit all their mid-range shots. That hurt us.”One of those easy buckets – Salida guard Lincoln Lyle rebounded an Aspen miss, pushed the ball and sank a jumper at the foul line – tied the game at 22 with little more than 2 minutes to play before the half.Aspen responded with a drive that ultimately defined the game. Parker pulled down an offensive board, sank the put-back in traffic despite being fouled, then hit his free throw with 2:11 left. After fellow senior Josh Gartner took a charge on the ensuing Salida possession, Trevor Watson finished on the offensive glass. Michael Taylor beat a defender with a left hook in the lane, then guard Matthew Holmes nailed a 3 from the corner, stretching the lead to 10 at the break.”The kids worked well together and worked hard on the defensive end,” said Aspen coach Steve Ketchum, who will be taking his third team to the Great 8. “We called off our press and that made a huge difference. It stopped all their easy lay-ups.”That new strategy paid off in the third quarter as Salida struggled to generate offense. The Skiers scored just eight points in the quarter – four each from Parker and Taylor – but the Spartans couldn’t capitalize and found themselves 10 points down heading into the fourth.Parker took the Skiers home. On a night when defenders keyed on Taylor, holding him to 10 points, and Aspen’s bench chipped in with only six, the 6-foot-7 All-State first team and player of the year candidate was more than willing to shoulder the load. Parker buried consecutive 3-pointers to push the lead to 13 and force a Salida timeout with 4:36 remaining. He scored 13 of his team’s final 15 points.”I think being at the point where teams double team me is where I want to be because it takes the pressure off Cory,” Taylor said.Parker calmly sank two free throws with 1:41 remaining – his 29th and 30th points – to give Aspen a 15-point edge and all but seal a 20th consecutive win. One minute later, he walked off to a standing ovation.”The people on the Front Range always say they never get to see Aspen or Cory because we never make it to [the Great 8],” Ketchum said. “They’ll finally get to see Cory, and I think they’ll be impressed.”The Skiers were flying so high after Saturday’s win that they didn’t even need a ladder to cut down the net. Taylor hung from the rim as he tore off a piece with a pair of scissors. Then Parker jumped on a folding chair to tear the net off the rim, then waved the nylon fervently as he led a cheer with a group of fans scattered across the court.Nothing but net. And now, east meets Western Slope. The Skiers are heading to Fort Collins where they will be gunning for a state title, not watching from the bleachers like they did a year ago. “That was our goal, our dream. … It’s a wonderful feeling, something not everyone gets to experience,” Parker said. “We’re blessed with this opportunity to prove ourselves.””Three more games,” Taylor added. “We’re on our way.”jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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