Fleming boys basketball took a few punches, but refused to get knocked out.
The defending Class 1A state champions were playing in their fifth consecutive state tournament, even reaching the last two finals (beat Shining Mountain in 2016, lost to Holly in 2015), but a relatively young group experienced growing pains that are commonplace for youthful teams. They lost six games in a row during the regular season.
And, after reaching the tournament as the No. 6 seed with a tough draw against No. 3 Front Range Baptist, the Wildcats fell behind 11-2 to start the contest and 19-9 early in the second quarter. Then, little by little, they clawed their way back and only trailed 22-19 at halftime.
Acting as a prize fighter with experience and toughness, not to mention star power in senior guard Jaxon King (1A player of the year as junior), Fleming pulled out a gutsy 45-42 comeback over the Falcons to reach the Final 4 again. The boys joined the girls in earning their way to the semifinals in the final games of the evening.
“I think this year was the first year we’ve had both (the boys and girls) teams at the state tournament since 1983, so that was huge,” King said. “We have a lot of momentum for tomorrow. We just have to keep it rolling, both the boys and the girls.”
For the boys, defense and team play was the calling card. Finally taking their first lead of the game with 2:20 left in third, a 29-28 margin thanks to back-to-back buckets by freshman guard Brandon Williams, Fleming rode enough momentum to pull through late.
Senior Alex Vandenbark nailed a three to push the lead to 41-38 with just over two minutes left and the Wildcats made the necessary stops to seal a semifinals bid. Noah Johnson made a layup with 1.1 seconds left to cut the deficit to 45-42 and Front Range got the ball back after an out-of-bounds by Fleming. But King swatted the Falcons’ game-tying three-point attempt.
King said he wasn’t surprised the ‘Cats fell behind early. After all, an added level of pressure is at play for a team looking to defend their title.
“Being the defending state champ, there’s a big target on your back,” he noted. Everyone wants to beat the defending champ. We have a few starters that haven’t seen any varsity time in the state tournament before. We were expecting them to come out with a few nerves. I wasn’t too worried.”
The young talent did come through eventually, led by Williams, but the veterans also stepped up when needed.
“Through that adversity, the thing that helps us is I have Jaxon King, Alex Vandenbark and Matthew Tanner, just really good leaders,” coach Tom Hessler said. “They’ve been through the wars. They know what it feels like to come here and what it takes to win.”
Another magical run continues for Fleming (16-9) on Friday against Cheyenne Wells at 8:30 p.m. with a third consecutive finals appearance on the line. Front Range Baptist (20-4) will face Creede/Lake City at 1:15 in consolations.
Sophomore center Deric Woods was among the players who stood out for Front Range Baptist.
(1) Holly 63, (8) Ouray 24
Holly had an excellent performance to kick off their quest for a second state title in three years with a 39-point victory. Senior guard Yaniel Vidal (20.9 points per game) led the Wildcats with 19 points. Backcourt mate Chandler Rushton chipped in 14.
One season after getting knocked out 63-59 by Shining Mountain in the semifinals, the Wildcats choked the life out of Ouray in outscoring the Trojans 53-16 in the final three frames. Holly nipped Fleming 33-32 in the state finals two seasons ago.
The Wildcats (23-0), featuring a tangent of athletic guards, will take on Kit Carson in the Final 4 on Friday at 5:30 p.m.
Brendon Olin led Ouray with 11 points. The Trojans face Longmont Christian at 10:15 a.m. in the consolation bracket Friday.
(4)Kit Carson 52, (5) Longmont Christian 47
The Wildcats rode a pair of high-scoring performances by seniors Brad Johnson (23 points) and Jaxon Crawford (22) to a Great 8 triumph.
Kit (18-5) controlled the contest most of the way with quarter leads of 18-10, 30-22 and 41-32. They lost to Shining Mountain in the Great 8 a season ago.
6-foot-6 freshman Dominic Puchino is a budding talent at center and racked up 21 points for Longmont Christian in the loss. The setback dropped the Warriors’ record to 20-5.
(2) Cheyenne Wells 59, (8) Creede/Lake City 34
The Tigers ripped their way through the Miners, sealing a semifinals bid. They now have a 21-2 record.
Seniors Peyton Halde (16 points) and Kendall Pelton (14) were the primary scorers for Cheyenne Wells, a team that lost in the Final 4 in 2014. Pelton (16.4 points per game) has been a dynamic player for a Tigers team that has only lost to Holly and Kit Carson.
The Miners were led by Isaac Borchers’ 13 points. They will face Front Range Baptist in consolations at 1:15 p.m. on Friday.