Two down, No. 1 to go for Aspen boys basketball |

Two down, No. 1 to go for Aspen boys basketball

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Jim Ryan Special to The Aspen Times

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – They have silenced the skeptics. They have passed every test.

Now, No. 2 gets a shot at No. 1.

“To me, it’s like we’ve been climbing Everest forever. We can now see the top,” Aspen head boys basketball coach Steve Ketchum said Friday night after his team’s 44-35 win over Buena Vista in the 3A state semifinals. “It’s within our reach.”

One more to go.

While their offensive woes persisted, the Skiers leaned on their stout defense to pull out another victory at Colorado State University. Aspen’s vaunted 1-3-1 defense held star guard Josh Morgan in check and No. 6 Buena Vista to 17 percent shooting in the first half of the first of two 3A semifinal games at Moby Arena. The Skiers, buoyed by two late 3-pointers from Andrew Papenfus and some strong contributions from their post players, withstood a fourth-quarter Demons surge and hung on for the nine-point win, clinching the school’s first berth in a state championship basketball game.

Top-seeded Faith Christian, a team Aspen has been chasing in the polls since November, will be waiting at 7 p.m. Saturday.

“I still don’t believe it,” Papenfus said. “Our coaching staff will have us prepared. We’ll come out and play our game, and see where the chips fall.”

“They’re No. 1, no question about it,” Ketchum added. “We’ll have to play the game of our life.”

The Skiers (26-0) have yet to do that in two games at Moby Arena. They escaped with a 50-44 win over Manitou Springs on Thursday despite missing 16 of 25 from the foul line. Friday, another Tri-Peaks conference team gave them all they could handle down the stretch.

Buena Vista guard Ben McElravy curled off a screen and nailed a 3 on the opening possession of the fourth quarter, whittling Aspen’s eight-point halftime lead to two. The Demons (21-5) seized possession one minute later, after Skiers center Bridger Dawson missed two free throws.

Aspen produced a defensive stop, then pushed the ball up court. Guard Matthew Holmes found Papenfus all alone in the corner.

The senior, who missed six of his seven shot attempts during the opening half, did not hesitate.

“I know I’m a good shooter, so I had confidence,” said Papenfus, who finished with a team-high 13 one day after scoring 23. “I had some daylight … and the coaches told me to keep shooting.”

He hit nothing but net. One minute later, he connected from the same spot to stretch the lead to 37-31.

“A great player hitting two great shots,” Ketchum said. “I’m starting to think he might be the best player in Colorado.”

Papenfus had some help this time, a stark contrast to Thursday. Zach Babich, who pitched in with 10 points, followed Papenfus’ two 3s with a score off the glass. Later, Nicky Fuller sank two free throws, stretching the lead to 10 with 2 minutes, 10 seconds remaining.

The senior guard was 7-of-8 from the line and finished with nine.

“Those free throws were huge,” Ketchum said. “I kept saying we were going to make them when it mattered most.”

After an early surge, it hardly looked like Aspen would need late free throws to secure its spot in the title game. Dawson nailed a mid-range jumper, Papenfus hit a free throw, then Babich scored six consecutive points as the Skiers pulled ahead, 7-2, in the game’s first four minutes.

Dawson scored seven of his 11 points in the opening half.

“I knew I needed to step up. Andrew was our only form of scoring [Thursday],” Dawson said. “Yesterday, I was really nervous since it was my first time here. I shook that off and felt confident.”

The Skiers went ice cold from there, however, scoring five points in a 10-plus minute stretch that extended deep into the second quarter. Consequently, they were forced to rely on their defense to keep them out in front.

The unit delivered, generating eight turnovers in the first 16 minutes and contesting nearly every Demons shot. Buena Vista was 4 of 24 from the field and scored just 15 points in the first half – the same total guard Morgan scored by himself in the opening quarter Thursday against Peak to Peak.

The senior, one of the frontrunners for 3A player of the year, missed six of seven shot attempts and scored just four points before the break.

“We soft-trapped him … and were going to make him pass or beat us from the outside. It was like he was saying, ‘Aren’t you going to come get me?’ We weren’t,” Ketchum said. “Fortunately, their other shooters didn’t hurt us enough.”

Morgan found few open looks in the second half, either. He finished with 10 points – 17 fewer than Thursday – and missed 15 of 19 shot attempts, including seven of eight from behind the arc.

The senior’s frustrations were evident in the final minute, when he stared toward the gym ceiling in disgust after watching consecutive free-throw attempts bound off the rim.

“To hold him to 10 points is amazing,” Ketchum said. “We were able to limit what he was doing very well. … It was a great team effort.”

Nolan Baker finished with 15 points and 17 rebounds for the Demons, who hit just 12 field goals and turned the ball over 15 times in the game.

Buena Vista could muster just four points in the game’s final 4:55.

“[Defense] has been our bread and butter all year,” Papenfus said. “The 1-3-1 trap, you can’t mimic anything like that in practice.”

The Skiers are hoping that trap can help them take a leap of Faith. The top-seeded Eagles pounded Eaton on Thursday, but survived a major scare Friday night against Kent Denver. Deron Rindels scored underneath to tie the game with 20 seconds remaining in regulation, then hit a go-ahead free throw with four seconds left in overtime to help his team escape with a 50-49 victory.

The Eagles will be vying for a third consecutive state title Saturday.

“They’re good, but they’re definitely beatable,” Dawson said. “This experience has been unbelievable, but we’re not done.”

“There’s no celebration now, no going out and partying. … We’re here to win,” Ketchum said. “It’s an incredible team we’re going to be playing. I know that. It’s been hard to convince the kids that they’re as good as the coaches believe they are. Belief is going to make all the difference.

“These kids can do it. I believe that without a doubt.”

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