Smoky Hill senior Anthony Harris Jr. passes the ball between his legs in the air as he rises for a dunk during the final minute of the Buffaloes’ 56-51 Class 5A boys state basketball second round playoff game on Feb. 26, 2022, at Smoky Hill High School. Eleventh-seeded Smoky Hill moved into a Sweet 16 contest against rival Eaglecrest. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

AURORA | Locked in an intense battle with Rocky Mountain for 31 minutes Saturday afternoon, the Smoky Hill boys basketball team got to let it all hang out in the last one.

A steal and layup by senior Brayden Maldonado cracked open what had been a two-point game and junior Terrell Smith and senior Anthony Harris Jr. thrilled the home crowd with back-to-back dunks in the final seconds that put the exclamation mark on a 56-51 Class 5A second round state playoff victory.

Smith capped his team-high 14-point performance with a cathartic slam to atone for an earlier miss and the renowned Harris Jr.’s last home game in a Smoky Hill uniform crescendoed with an Eastbay, between-the-legs throw-down that sent coach Anthony Hardin’s Buffaloes into the Sweet 16 in style.

“I missed my first dunk, so I’m like ‘I’m getting this one’ and had to let the anger out,” said Smith, who played a key role on the interior combating Rocky Mountain’s zone defense and joined Maldonado and Harris Jr. (13 points apiece) and junior Rickey Mitchell (12) in double figures.

Smoky Hill (16-7) earned the chance to play at rival and sixth-seeded Eaglecrest (19-4) in a Sweet 16 contest at 6 p.m. March 2. The Buffaloes and Raptors split the two-game Centennial League series, with each team winning on their home court.

Besides Smoky Hill and Eaglecrest (which topped Highlands Ranch, story here), the Sweet 16 includes two other Aurora teams in No. 13 Rangeview (which defeated Cherry Creek, story here) and No. 10 Regis Jesuit, which topped Chatfield (story here).

The Buffaloes eased past Rocky Mountain (14-11) 79-44 at the Chaparral/ThunderRidge Tournament early in the regular season, but Hardin knew the Lobos would be a much bigger challenge this time, especially after watching star guard Aidan Kuhl drop in 41 points in a first round win over Valor Christian.

“We played them earlier this year and were successful, but the way they played Wednesday night, we completely threw that first game out because that wasn’t the basketball team we were playing today,” Hardin said. “We were expecting a dogfight and knew we’d have a tough one on our hands.”

Smoky Hill took pride in its aggressive defensive effort against Kuhl — by far the leading scorer in 5A, who averaged 25.4 points per game coming in — as it limited the University of Northern Alabama commitment to just seven points, which matched his season-low.

The Lobos’ supporting cast rose to the occasion, however, as four other players knocked down 3-pointers and junior Dylan Larson drained four of them on his way to a game-high 20 points. Ethan Thomason, a 6-foot-8, 305-pound junior, made life difficult for the Buffaloes on the interior as well and also knocked down a triple when left open.

Smoky Hill countered with several inside baskets from Smith, who found the open spots deep in Rocky Mountain’s zone for some finishes in the paint, while the Buffaloes also knocked some mid-range and perimeters shots in the face of the zone.

All that added up to a tense ending, with the Lobos having the ball inside a minute down only two points after Maldonado made one of two free throw attempts. Rocky Mountain didn’t score until just before the buzzer when the outcome had been decided.

“It was just defense (at the end),” Harris Jr. said. “We weren’t focused on scoring. We knew if everybody could lock down their man, we’d be alright.”

That’s just what happened in the final minute, as Maldonado pressured Rocky Mountain point guard Jackson Harding and forced a turnover, streaking in alone for a layup that pushed the advantage to four points.

Another steal led to a soaring dunk from Smith and the capper came when Harris Jr. landed the last of scores of highlight-reel dunks on his home court when he passed the ball from his left hand to his right between his legs as he rose to the rim and threw it down.

“One of our goals coming in was to pressure the ball full court,” Hardin said. “They did a good job for 31 minutes, but the pressure got home eventually. When it got home, it got home.”

Next up is an equally-tough matchup with rival Eaglecrest, which won 72-63 on Jan. 29 after Smoky Hill prevailed 78-60 in the first meeting Jan. 5.

“It’s going to be a big one,” Harris Jr. said. “We can’t wait.”

Courtney Oakes is Sentinel Colorado Sports Editor. Reach him at [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. IG: Sentinel Prep Sports

(11) SMOKY HILL 56, (22) ROCKY MOUNTAIN 51

Score by quarters:

Rocky Mtn.  9  15  11  16 — 51

Smoky Hill  8  17  15  16 — 56

ROCKY MOUNTAIN (51)

Dylan Larson 7 2-2 20, Aidan Kuhl 2 2-2 7, Jackson Harding 1 0-0 3, Charlie Dortch 2 0-0 4, Ethan Thomason 5 1-3 12, Taaveti Liufau 2 0-0 6. Totals 19 5-7 51.

SMOKY HILL (56)

Rickey Mitchell 5 0-0 12, Brayden Maldonado 5 2-3 13, Jonathan Potts 0 0-0 0, Terrell Smith 6 2-2 14, Anthony Harris Jr. 5 3-3 13, Jayson Lewis 1 0-0 2, Ibrahim Sylla 0 0-0 0. Totals 22 7-8 56.

3-point field goalsRocky Mountain (9): Dylan Larson 4, Taaveti Liufau 2, Aidan Kuhl, Jackson Harding, Ethan Thomason. Smoky Hill (3): Rickey Mitchell 2, Brayden Maldonado. Total fouls — Rocky Mountain 11, Smoky Hill 10. Fouled out — None. Technical fouls — None.

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