DENVER | Josh Walton got mad at himself for missing a free throw with 0.8 seconds left in overtime of Friday night’s Class 5A boys state basketball semifinal.
Fortunately for the Eaglecrest senior, he got another one.
Walton calmly sank the back end of a pair of free throws he earned with a drive to the basket and it served as the final blow in the top-seeded Raptors’ 61-60 victory over No. 5 Rock Canyon in a heavyweight slugfest in front of a raucous crowd at the Denver Coliseum.
The shot finally put a dagger into the hopes of the Jaguars, who built a lead as large as four points in overtime, but couldn’t put away the veteran Raptors, who earned their way into the state championship game for the second straight season. They also earned a chance to send longtime head coach John Olander out with his second state state title.
“My heart’s beating out of my chest right now,” Walton said shortly after his deciding free throw. “I’m still mad I missed the first one, but life goes on and I had to knock down the second one. I went through my normal breathing exercises so I could just calm myself down. This was a big atmosphere.”
Indeed the atmosphere gets even bigger now, as Eaglecrest takes on third-seeded George Washington — a 61-56 winner over No. 2 ThunderRidge in the other semifinal — at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Denver Coliseum. The game follows another Aurora team, the Grandview girls, playing for the 5A state championship. The 5A girls final is slated for 6:30 p.m.
Senior Colbey Ross delivered a team-high 25 points for Eaglecrest, including six of its seven points in overtime.
Back-to-back Ross baskets — the second made possible by a Victor Garnes’ steal — helped the Raptors quickly erase a 60-56 deficit with a little over a minute remaining. Eaglecrest had a few of those scenarios as it dug out of a double-digit hole to take the lead on several occasions in the fourth quarter and overtime.
“It shows that we never give up and we have so much heart,” Ross said.
In a tie game, Eaglecrest forced a turnover to take possession with 4.4 seconds left and inbounded the ball to Walton, who drove the length of the floor. He drew a foul from Rock Canyon’s Nick Janedis and stepped to the line with 0.8 seconds remaining.
Walton dropped in the second of his two attempts to give him 13 points — as the only other Eaglecrest player in double figures — and the Jaguars’ baseball pass to the other end of the court was broken up as time expired.
“I tell you what, there’s no bigger pressure than a 0.8 free throw to put your team into the state finals,” Olander said. “I’ve been there in college and didn’t come through, so I know how hard it is. I’m so proud of him.”
Junior Sam Masten scored a game-high 34 points, 20 of them in the second half and overtime, to lead Rock Canyon, which had upset Grandview in a buzzer-beater in the Great 8.
The Jaguars — who beat Eaglecrest by five points in the regular season — built a lead as large as 28-18 late in the first half and never let up as the Raptors came charging back. Masten and Tyson Gilbert (15 points) knocked down contested shots or earned their way to the free throw line and a variety of other players coming through with clutch plays.
Rock Canyon was what Olander and his staff knew it would be down to the last second.
“They are a really good team and when you watch film as much as we do, we knew this was one of the best defensive teams we faced all year,” Olander said. “I told our guys ‘we’re going to have to take it, they aren’t going to give it to us.'”
Take it, Eaglecrest did.
The Raptors nearly finished it off in regulation with a five-point burst that gave them a 54-52 lead with 1:15 left. Walton made a layup and drew a foul and though he missed a free throw, Garnes stole an outlet pass and fed Ross, who knocked down a 3-pointer, one of just three on 3-for-22 shooting from the beyond the arc for Eaglecrest.
Masten tied it, but the Raptors had a chance to win it with a basketball in regulation. They fed senior Ikenna Ozor inside with under 10 seconds left, but his shot was blocked. Walton got a chance after that, but wasn’t able to get off a shot as the game went to overtime.
Eaglecrest prevailed in the extra session with Ross coming up clutch when needed.
“I just think I’m made for these moments, me and my teammates,” he said. “I know what it takes to get us where we want to get.”
The Raptors must quickly turn their attention to a George Washington team that looked impressive in its win over ThunderRidge.
The Patriots haven’t been to the state championship game since 2009 — when they lost to Regis Jesuit — so Eaglecrest has the experience edge.
Plenty concerns Olander about the team standing in the way of the Raptors’ title.
“I knew this game was going to be all we could handle, so I don’t know what we’re going to do; we’ll figure it out,” Olander said. “We have to handle their speed and quickness for sure.”
Courtney Oakes is Aurora Sentinel Sports Editor. Reach him at 303-750-7555 or [email protected] Twitter: @aurorasports. FB: Aurora Prep Sentinel
(1) EAGLECREST 61, (5) ROCK CANYON 60 (OT)
Score by quarters:
Rock Canyon 17 11 13 13 6 — 60
Eaglecrest 12 8 20 14 7 — 61
ROCK CANYON (60)
Tyson Gilbert 4 4-4 15, JT Bley 1 0-0 2, Sam Masten 11 8-11 34, Joe Bryson 1 1-2 3, Colin Rardin 2 1-2 6, Nick Janedis 0 0-0 0, Carter Coonts 0 0-0 0. Totals 19 14-19 60.
Victor Garnes 3 1-1 8, Colbey Ross 8 8-8 25, Austin Forsberg 2 0-0 5, Ikenna Ozor 3 0-0 6, Nate Bokol 1 0-0 2, Josh Walton 4 5-8 13, Xai’Vion Jackson 1 0-1 2, Morgan Brown 0 0-0 0, Jamey Rich 0 0-0 0. Totals 22 14-18 61.
3-point field goals — Rock Canyon (8): Sam Masten 4, Tyson Gilbert 3, Colin Rardin; Eaglecrest (3): Austin Forsberg, Victor Garnes, Colbey Ross. Total fouls — Rock Canyon 16, Eaglecrest 18. Fouled out — None. Technical fouls — None.