DENVER – Knowing what was on the line, there was an added pressure on the Eaglecrest Raptors to give their beloved coach the only send-off they all would have been truly satisfied with.
That meant winning a state championship. But facing a talented George Washington team in the Class 5A boys basketball state championship game on Saturday at the Denver Coliseum, there were a number of bleak moments when it looked like the Raptors wouldn’t be able to get the job done.
Finally in the second half, the top-seeded Raptors showed their quality and jumped ahead to win 53-47. They left the Coliseum with their program’s second state championship trophy and Raptors head coach John Olander, who will retire after 16 years at Eaglecrest, left a champion.
“You don’t coach high school sports to win state championships,” Olander said. “You do it because it’s a sport you love and you want to help kids out. So that first one was awfully cool. But getting two of them, you know, just kind of validates what you’re doing and you do it with different kids. To do it with all these people here, a great school, my kids, my family, it’s pretty amazing.”
One of the statewide favorites for much of the season, and leading for much of Saturday’s title game, the third-seeded George Washington (25-3) boys felt as though this year’s club could return to the promised land for the first time since the Patriots won back-to-back state championships in 1993 and 1994 while led by the program’s idol Chauncey Billups.
In a low-scoring first half for both teams, the Patriots found an early advantage at the defensive end. Pulling ahead, the Patriots held the Raptors (24-4) to nine points in the first quarter and built upon that lead by giving up just seven points in the second.
With just three early lead changes in the first half, George Washington junior Mohammad Diallo hit a last-second layup to give the Patriots a 22-16 lead at halftime.
“In the first half, we weren’t playing our brand of basketball and that’s not going to cut it against a really good team like GW,” Eaglecrest senior Colbey Ross said. “In the second half, we had to take it to them and play defense. That was really big for us.”
In the second half, the game turned into a back-and-forth contest.
Eaglecrest’s Ikenna Ozor hit a layup to put the Raptors up 28-27 with 3 minutes, 39 seconds left in the third quarter but just over a minute later, the Patriots retook the lead and looked as though they would be ahead to start the fourth quarter. On the final play of the third, during which the lead changed three more times, Ross hit a 3-pointer to give the Raptors a 33-32 lead.
The Raptors opened the fourth quarter on a 9-0 run and after hitting a number of bonus free throws, led by 10 with under three minutes left in the game. Down 50-41 with a minute left, George Washington forced back-to-back turnovers and cut the lead to 50-45 with 42.5 seconds left but couldn’t pull any closer.
“We came out pretty slow in the first half,” Eaglecrest junior Victor Garnes said. “They’re a really athletic and great team and we had to battle back in the second half. We just stayed in it and we were able to get the win.”
Ross (18.4 points per game) led all scorers with 15 points. Ozor scored 12 and Garnes scored 11. George Washington’s Shaheem Speer and Tre Pierce led the Patriots with 10 points apiece.
The Raptors, who won their first state title in 2013 and finished runners-up last season, edged No. 5 Rock Canyon in overtime in Friday night’s Final 4 to reach the title game.