DENVER — Evergreen will get another shot at its first girls basketball title in the school’s history.
After losing to Valor Christian in the Class 4A girls basketball state championship game last season in Boulder. The No. 3-seeded Cougars defeated No. 2 Pueblo West 45-29 in the first Class 4A semifinal game Thursday at the Denver Coliseum.
“I don’t think anyone expected us to get back to where we were,” Evergreen’s lone senior Keigan Drysdale said about the return trip to the title game. “We are lucky enough, especially as a senior, to be able to get back here twice now.”
Evergreen’s 6-foot-2 sophomore Claudia Dillon led the way with 19 points and a dozen rebounds in what was the Cougars’ fifth straight victory. Evergreen (24-3 overall) had lost to Golden and Valor toward the end of conference play before starting its playoff run.
“At the beginning of the season we didn’t know how good we were going to be,” Dillon said. “The fact that we are back here for the second year in a row without Sam (Kisiel) and some of those other seniors is kind of a big thing.”
Kisiel ended her career as one of the Cougars’ all-time leading scorers last year with 1,336 points. Evergreen graduated a handful of seniors from last year’s state runner-up team.
“It’s a huge advance to have us here last year,” Evergreen coach Amy Bahl said of playing on the big stage again. “We felt very prepared. There isn’t that nervousness or uncertainly. We know what it takes to win here.”
What the Cougars did to defeat Pueblo West (23-4) and end the Cyclones’ 11-game winning streak was produce a remarkable defensive effort. Evergreen’s defense held Pueblo West to just 2-of-22 shooting in the first half. The Cyclones finished shooting just 8-of-40 (20 percent) from the field.
“That is what won us the game,” Drysdale said of the Cougars’ defensive effort. “Our shots weren’t always falling, but our defense was solid.”
The Cougars had an 8-0 run in the first quarter to take the lead, but Pueblo West responded with an 8-0 run of its own to grab a 12-10 lead with 5:13 left in the second quarter. Evergreen answered with a 7-0 run to grab the lead for good before halftime.
Evergreen put the game away in the fourth quarter with a 20-point outburst that included making 12 free throws down the stretch. Drysdale (11 points) and Dillon combined for 30 points. Juniors Meriel Hahn and Baylee Galan-Browne pitched in five points each for the Cougars.
“That our game-plan, we had to look to drive,” Bahl said of the Cougars attacking the basket. “We weren’t going to just rely on outside shooting.”
Pueblo West was led by junior Olivia Lough (12 points). She was the only Cyclone to reach double-digit points. It was the fifth straight season Pueblo West has been eliminated by a 4A Jeffco League team.
Pueblo West has become very familiar with Jeffco teams in the postseason. The Cyclones came into Thursday’s state semifinal having had their season ended in the playoffs by either Jeffco’s D’Evelyn or Valor the previous four seasons.
Evergreen has ever won a girls basketball state championship. The Cougars will get their shot at history in the 4A title game at 1 p.m. Saturday, back at the Denver Coliseum.