BOULDER | One team in the Class 5A boys state basketball championship game has been picked to be there since Day One. The other was not.
Shortly after preseason title favorite Denver East advanced to Saturday’s 8 p.m. final at the Coors Events Center, Eaglecrest — unranked in the Denver Post’s preseason coaches poll — earned the other berth with a convincing 74-59 semifinal victory over top-seeded Mountain Vista Friday night.
Coach John Olander’s second-seeded Raptors (22-5) did what the 2007-08 team could not, win in the semifinals and qualify for the first state championship game in school history. Eaglecrest gets its title shot against a Denver East team it lost to by 20 points in the third game of the season.
“I’m almost speechless; you can coach a whole career and never get to this point,” said Olander, who is in his 12th season at the school. “I think of my dad (his current assistant), who was such a great coach and had such great teams and never made it to a Final Four or a final. I’m thankful to Eaglecrest for giving me a chance 12 years ago. It takes a lot of people to get to this point.
“At the beginning of the year, I knew what we had. I was confident and the kids were confident. You have to have some good fortune along the way and we’ve had that, but these kids deserve that.”
Senior Rayjon Craig scored a team-high 16 points for Eaglecrest, which also got double-digit efforts from junior Jaisean Jackson (13), senior Maurice Perez (11) and sophomore Blend Avdili (10, to go with 15 rebounds). Senior TreShawn Wilford played just 14-plus minutes because of foul trouble, but finished with nine points, while gritty senior Sean Watkins added seven.
Mountain Vista, which prevented an all-Aurora semifinal when it beat Cherokee Trail in double overtime in the Great 8, was led by Jake Pemberton’s 17 points, while Elijah Valdez added 16. The Golden Eagles finished the season 23-3.
Like they did in the previous round, when they upset top-seeded Regis Jesuit, the Raptors came out confident against Mountain Vista.
Wilford was whistled for two fouls in the first few minutes of the opening quarter and had to go to the bench, but Eaglecrest used depth to get out to an early lead. The Golden Eagles tied it at 16-16, but two Avdili free throws gave Eaglecrest a lead they would keep for the final three quarters.
The Raptors got the advantage to double digit at 28-18 on a basket by Jackson, but Mountain Vista’s quick-strike offense reeled off eight straight to make it a two-point game. Another Eaglecrest run, this one a 7-1 spurt, ended the half with the Raptors ahead 35-27.
“The starting five, we say before every game, ‘don’t let up, don’t let up,'” Jackson said. “You have to play your hardest at every moment.”
Once they got a bit of an advantage, Eaglecrest’s defense became that much more effective as the Golden Eagles pressed to catch up.
The Raptors forced turnovers in bunches, blocked a variety of shots — Craig was credited with four — consistently outworked Mountain Vista on the offensive and defensive glass and were unselfish with the basketball.
“Defense, it’s always about defense,” Craig said. “The week off really helped us. We knew what we had to do.”
Eaglecrest also played with an edge Olander helped build when he showed his players the preseason rankings as motivation.
“At the beginning of the season, they didn’t even have us ranked in the top 10, so it feels great to be in the top two,” junior LaDerian King said. “Being in the final is unbelieveable to me.”
The Raptors will have even more motivation in the final as they look to erase the memory of an 83-63 loss on Dec. 4.
“It just got away from us at the end,” Jackson said. “We weren’t physically and mentally prepared for that game, we just thought we were going to come in and it was going to be a good game. I think as a team we have a different mentality. It should be a good game tomorrow.”
Reach Sports Editor Courtney Oakes at [email protected] or 303-750-7555
(2) EAGLECREST 74, (1) MOUNTAIN VISTA 59
Score by quarters:
Eaglecrest 18 17 16 23 — 74
Mtn. Vista 16 11 13 19 — 59
Rayjon Craig 5 5-9 16, TreShawn Wilford 4 0-1 9, Sean Watkins 1 5-5 7, Jaisean Jackson 4 5-8 13, Blend Avdili 4 2-2 10, Maurice Perez 3 4-5 11, LaDerian King 1 1-2 3, Elijah Ross 1 2-4 4, Brandon Brown 0 1-2 1, Marcus Carpenter 0 0-0 0. Totals 23 25-38 74.
MOUNTAIN VISTA (59)
Amir Qadri 0 0-0 0, Chandler Wiscombe 2 1-2 6, Jake Pemberton 6 5-9 17, Elijah Valdez 5 3-4 16, Mitch Carter 1 2-3 4, Damani Respass 2 3-4 8, Graham Smith 2 1-2 5, David Sewell 0 0-0 0, Bashar Sawaged 1 0-0 3, TJ Knoll 0 0-0 0, Brady Subart 0 0-0 0, Jonathan Moore 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 15-24 59.
3-point field goals — Eaglecrest (3): Rayjon Craig, Maurice Perez, TreShawn Wilford; Mountain Vista (6): Elijah Valdez 3, Damani Respass, Bashar Sawaged, Chandler Wiscombe. Total fouls — Eaglecrest 19, Mountain Vista 24. Fouled out — Eaglecrest: Blend Avdili, Wilford; Mountain Vista: Mitch Carter, Valdez. Technical fouls — None.