Grandview’s Lauren Betts (51), Sienna Betts (5) and Marya Hudgins hold up the Class 5A state championship trophy in front of the Wolves’ crowd after a 52-40 win over Valor Christian on March 12 at Denver Coliseum. (Photo by Courtney Oakes/Sentinel Colorado)

On a presumably dreary January day in Minnesota, the Grandview girls basketball team’s record dropped to 5-9 after a nationally-televised defeat.

At that point, the Wolves had as many losses as the program had in the previous three seasons combined and a challenging stretch ahead when it returned to Colorado.

Yet what could still happen on March 12 is the one thing coach Josh Ulitzky drilled into his team the entire season, even as losses mounted against some of the toughest teams in the country.

That targeted day finally arrived and when it ended, Grandview played its best basketball of the year with a thorough 52-40 win over top-seeded Valor Christian at Denver Coliseum. to bring home the coveted Class 5A state championship.

“I give a lot of credit to Coach Josh,” senior star Lauren Betts said in the aftermath of the celebration as the Wolves won the program’s first state championship since 2018 and its third all-time.

“We were super mad at him that he us in that tough schedule out of state and he told us ‘all that matters is March 12,’” she added. “The day came, we won, and I couldn’t be more thankful that he put us in that situation.”

Ulitzky guided Grandview to state championships in 2017 and 2018, so he knew everything it takes to make a title run.

Having Betts — a 6-foot-7 star who is the consensus No. 1-ranked recruit in the country in the Class of 2022, a Stanford University signee, McDonald’s All-American and two-time Gatorade Colorado Player of the Year — and another Division I player in senior Marya Hudgins provided a fantastic foundation, but Ulitzky needed to challenge a variety of players to elevate their games.

So he put together a gauntlet of a schedule that kept his team from playing a single game in Colorado in the three weeks before winter break, sending them to the She Got Game Classic in Dallas and then the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix.

Minus Betts — who was recovering from a minor injury — Grandview lost by 44 points to Duncanville, Texas, and finished 0-3 in Texas, then won once in four games in Phoenix.

A double-digit home loss to Mullen, which went on to win the 4A state championship, in the first game after winter break Jan. 5 put the Wolves at 1-7. Not exactly where a team that came into the season as one of the two state championship favorites expects to be.

“We had some bumps out of a state and it was rough a little bit, but I kept coming back to them about if they get where we want to be on March 12, is it worth it?,” Ulitzky said.

“They make fun of me for it, but I feel like they heard the message. They knew.”

Senior Amaya Charles, Betts’ freshman sister, Sienna, junior Isa Dillehay and sophomore Gabriella Cunningham — all key components to the state championship victory — all grew into their roles while facing some high-level competition.

It started to come together a few days after the loss to Mullen, when Grandview beat Valor Christian — the defending state champions — 59-52 at home in a game in which they had a double-digit lead in the second half.

The Wolves won three more Centennial League games to move to 5-7 ahead of two more out-of-state games at an invitational tournament put together by ESPN that pitted them against DeSoto (Texas) and host Hopkins (Minnesota).

Two more losses put them at 4-9 at the midway point of the season — and in a comically low position in the Colorado High School Activities Association’s RPI standings due to their low winning percentage — but they were ready to take off.

Grandview never lost again.

The streak began with a rousing comeback win over Regis Jesuit Jan. 28 in a game in which the Wolves rallied from a double-digit deficit for a 59-57 win against the rival Aurora team that ended their championship hopes in last season’s semifinals.

Grandview turned around and beat the same Mullen team it lost to the first time by 33 points and rolled through the end of the regular season with its toughest challenges coming in two matchups against an Arapahoe team that made it to the Final Four.

The Wolves played their parts to perfection in the postseason and were largely unchallenged in five victories, in which their average margin of victory was 30.2 points.

Still, Grandview knew that the championship game would be a battle, especially as Valor Christian had a McDonald’s All-American and Division I-caliber force of its own in Raegan Beers plus some key holdovers from the Eagles’ championship win a year ago.

The biggest thing the Wolves had going for them was the mentality of Betts, who was on the Grandview team that lost in the state championship game as a freshman and along with Hudgins was part of the group in 2020 that earned its way into the state championship game, only to have the chance wiped away by the explosion of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I texted my parents this morning and said ‘I refuse to lose,’” Betts said. “I don’t care what happens, I have to keep my focus. My teammates can’t see me slacking, so I have to keep the mentality that we were going to win this and we did.”

Ulitzky had seen this before from Grandview’s other highest-profile player — Michaela Onyenwere — who also had to wait until her senior season to earn a state championship when she helped lift the Wolves to the 2017 title.

“Credit to Lauren, when we got to the playoffs, she really had the mentality of ‘I’m not going let this opportunity go, I’m going to capitalize on it,’” Ulitzky said. “Honestly, there were a lot of similarities to Michaela. Just sheer ‘I’m not going to lose and we’re going to find a way.’ That’s what I saw from her the last couple of weeks.”

Betts did her part in the championship game by virtually neutralizing Beers (though she scored one point fewer), while serving as a significant deterrent in the paint.

The rest of the Wolves were just as integral in the victory in a game in which they got up by as many as 21 points.

Hudgins, who won a state championship in Georgia before she moved to Colorado prior to her sophomore season, finished with a game-high 17 points, while Sienna Betts added nine points and eight rebounds.

The steady Charles added eight points and directed the offense, while Dillehay and Cunningham each provided defensive and hustle plays that didn’t show up in the box score.

“Ever since we started playing, coach told us it is all for March 12,” Charles said. “No matter how much we lost or how we improved, it was all for this day. It’s exciting to see that it all paid off.”

Hudgins — who said after Grandview’s Great 8 win over Cherry Creek that she was going to soak in the entirety of her final week in high school basketball — especially reveled in the victory.

“So much work went into this,” said Hudgins, a Santa Clara signee who averaged a team-high 19 points per game in the postseason.

“It took so many hours outside of our own practices,” she added. “We have put so much time and effort into our chemistry and how we play on the court. I really think it shows.”

Added the diminutive Dillehay — one of the “gamechangers” that Ulitzky could count on off the bench — was glad to see the journey come to an end in the way they wanted.

“All of our traveling, our practices, our meetings; we all had this one focus and we were able to do it tonight,” said Dillehay, who snatched a rebound away from Beers at one point to keep a play alive in the second half.

With the game decided, Betts got to share a special moment on the bench with her sister Sienna, who was a huge contributor to the title run, as they embraced with tears in their eyes as they completed the only varsity season they got to play together — with a title.

“This is something we talked about in middle school,” Lauren Betts said. “If anyone took a picture of that, it’s going to be framed 100 percent. It was a ‘we did it’ kind of thing. Obviously we wanted to keep our mentality that the game wasn’t over, but when those seconds went down and I was hugging my sister, it was like ‘I can’t believe this is happening, this is insane.”

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