Moffat County hoopsters put up fierce postseason competition vs. Jefferson Academy
A strong first half and a final burst of energy showed the kinds of things Moffat County High School girls basketball is capable of achieving, but the first game of the 3A CHSAA State Championships wasn’t fully owned by the Lady Bulldogs and that made all the difference.
The Round of 32 saw the season come to a close for MoCo girls, coming down to the final second of the game as Lady Dogs trailed Jefferson Academy 52-50.
With an inbound opportunity on their own side of the court and one tick of the clock remaining, MCHS athletes lined up for the incoming pass with hope in their hearts that they’d have one more chance to get the ball in the rim to force overtime.
However, the Jaguars shut down that possibility as they intercepted the baseline pass from Halle Hamilton to effectively end the year for Lady Dogs at 12-9.
It wasn’t a night that was definitive in terms of a lead for either team.
In fact, despite being ranked 17th to Jefferson’s 16, Moffat County was the apparent favorite in the opening half, holding a sliver of a lead to end the first quarter 13-12.
The Lady Dogs pushed the gap to a five-point spread by halftime as they moved to 28-23.
It was the third frame when the Jaguars pounced, or rather let the Dogs pounce on them, as an abundance of fouls helped them make it a 16-6 period for the 39-34 lead.
The fourth quarter started slowly, as Jefferson got their lead to double digits, and Bulldog senior Stephenie Swindler’s aggressive play wound up getting her fouled out of the game.
“She plays with a lot of heart,” MCHS head coach Jim Loughran said. “Our seniors hung in there all the way to the end. We came back, pressed back and got back in that game.”
It was in the last few minutes of the match that Lady Bulldogs truly started to rediscover their capabilities as a shift in defensive strategy proved a hiccup in the Jaguar plan.
“We put in a 1-2-2 press and tried a real interesting thing we call ‘tortoise.’ They couldn’t handle it,” Loughran said of the disruption to Jefferson’s flow.
A slew of steals and the resultant turnaround points built up the Dogs’ side of the scoreboard, both from fast breaks and free throws.
A layup by Hamilton evened the tally up at 48 as she, Emaleigh Papierski, Cayden King, Reese Weber, Jenna Timmer and Bree Meats started picking apart their opponents in the last 90 seconds.
Loughran said he was pleased he was able to use the majority of his roster, including Makayla Martinez, Jacie Evenson, and Rylie Felten (back in action after being out since December with an ankle injury) as well as Emma Jones and Sadie Smilanich ready to go.
Ultimately, even if it didn’t send them to the next round, the tremendous do-or-die effort at the end of the evening didn’t go unnoticed.
“I’m really proud of the girls. They played a heck of a game; to be down 10 and come back from that, they could have won it,” Loughran said. “There’s a phrase I told the girls: ‘We didn’t lose, we just ran out of time.’ We had a chance all the way to the end of the game.”
A few too many trips to the line that didn’t result in points hurt the final score, though Loughran said he couldn’t fault players when the pressure was that intense.
“We had four missed free throws I think would have propelled us over. I think that would have made the difference,” he said. “It’s hard to shoot free throws when you’re under that much stress, but you’ve got to get there at that level to know what it’s like so in the future, you can get them.”
The Bulldog loss sent Jefferson to Saturday’s Sweet 16, with all the top seeds in the first round doing the same across the state, including MoCo’s Western Slope League rivals Delta and Cedaredge, who coasted to victory Friday against Buena Vista and SkyView Academy, respectively.
Cedaredge couldn’t handle Saturday opponent University in a 41-31 loss, but the Panthers progressed to the state quarterfinals after No. 4 Delta moved past Platte Valley 58-53 Saturday.
The three other WSL teams also ended at the Round of 32.
While Coal Ridge wasn’t even close to winning in a 67-28 blowout by Lutheran and Roaring Fork fell 25-20 in a low-energy night versus Platte Valley, Grand Valley had the greatest heartbreaker of the conference in a 62-61 defeat to Brush.
Meanwhile, the most one-sided match of Friday night took place on the same court as the Bulldogs as hosting Colorado Springs team St. Mary’s trounced Brighton’s Eagle Ridge Academy 72-19 in the faceoff between the top seed and the bottom of the 32-team brackets.
Loughran noted the Lady Dogs were more than ready to set their sights on the defending state champion Pirates, who sailed on for the Great 8 round with no bumps against Jefferson in an 80-33 blowout.
“They wanted to play St. Mary’s and have that experience with the number one team in the state,” he said. “We would’ve enjoyed that. Just a couple points off.”
With the first playoff game in the books for some members of the team, it was one of many for others, with juniors and seniors still likely to remember getting as far as the Final Four in 2018.
A two-point loss this year beats the upset the Bulldogs saw in 2019 to much lower seed University in the Round of 32, plus they got to sport their own blue and white uniforms compared to a mixup with jerseys at the end of last season.
Hamilton said she certainly can’t complain with the conclusion of her sophomore hoops season.
“I know it was a loss, but we played so good together today,” she said. “The energy was completely up the entire game, it never felt like it dropped. We had such good teamwork against probably the best team we’ve played the whole year. I felt very confident with my team. We left everything we possibly could out on the court.”
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