DENVER – Almost one year to the day exactly, Evergreen’s girls basketball team discovered just how sweet redemption truly can be.
The Cougars returned to the Class 4A state championship game Saturday afternoon, but left last year’s title-game loss to Valor Christian in the past. Evergreen came out with confidence and led wire-to-wire against top-seeded Pueblo South, leaving Denver Coliseum with a 45-35 victory over the Colts and the team’s first-ever state title.
“There wasn’t a lot of pressure, but we felt so much better going into this game,” Evergreen junior Meriel Hahn said. “We felt we really had a chance to win this year.”
Claudia Dillon paced the Cougars (25-3) with 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Baylee Galan-Browne also dropped in 11 points.
Dillon scored 14 points in the 2016 championship game as a freshman. She said another year helped make a big difference, not only for her, but the team as well.
“That was helpful for us because we knew how to control our emotions and not let the crowd get in our head,” Dillon said. “That was a huge advantage that we had.”
Gabi Lucero paced Pueblo South (25-3) with 10 points and seven rebounds, and Maya Austin added nine points with a trio of 3-pointers.
Lucero reportedly had played the last several games with a torn meniscus. The sophomore was matched up on Dillon throughout the game, a battle that Dillon admitted pushed her to the best of her ability.
“(Gabi’s) a great player. She’s a little bit different than Claudia because she likes to bang more and she’s a physical player,” Evergreen coach Amy Bahl said. “Claudia is more long and lean and athletic and tries to avoid that contact. I thought it was a good matchup.
“She still kept her cool and that’s why other players stepped up around her.”
One of those players was Hahn, who scored seven of her nine points during a critical juncture in the second half. The Colts had used a 7-2 run late in the third quarter to pull within three points at 29-26, but Hahn saved a loose ball and launched a high shot that banked into the net.
Galan-Browne hit a shot just before the buzzer to make it 33-26 headed into the fourth quarter, and Hahn pushed the lead to 12 points with a three-point play and a bucket inside.
“We knew that we still had to keep pushing because there was eight minutes in that quarter and a lot can happen in eight minutes,” Dillon said. “Even though we were getting that lead, we had to keep going and getting that lead even (bigger).”
Pueblo South again closed the gap, thanks to a pair of big 3-pointers from Normandi Guarienti. Lucero made it a 39-35 game in the final three minutes, but the Colts were held scoreless the rest of the way.
Evergreen went to the free-throw line 12 times in the last two minutes, and even though the Cougars only connected on five of those attempts, Pueblo South was unable to get back into it.
“I think they believed, and they have all year, that we could still defend and get stops,” Bahl said. “I think that’s kind of what they used as their motivation at the end there.”
Both teams are still young and can be expected to be among the contenders again next season. Evergreen graduates only one senior in Keigan Drysdale, who finished third on the team in scoring this winter.
“Having one senior we thought was going to be really hard to handle because we lost so many last year,” Hahn said. “But (Keigan) led the team really well and I thought it was a really good way to go out for her.”