HIGHLANDS RANCH — ThunderRidge couldn't have scripted a better setting in which to give coach Joe Ortiz his 400th career win.
The Grizzlies, ranked No. 2 in Class 5A boys basketball, upset No. 1 Chaparral 56-51 in front of a packed house at ThunderRidge High School. The win gave ThunderRidge sole possession of first place in the always-tough Continental League, and avenged its only loss of the season to date.
To top it off, the battle of the top two ranked teams in 5A was a classic. It came down to Justin McCaw's free throw with 9.9 seconds left in the game.
"That's the best win you can probably have for 400," said McCaw, the ThunderRidge senior who led his team with 17 points.
ThunderRidge (19-1) led 25-24 at halftime thanks to a late 3-pointer from freshman Garrett Arnold, and then built a nine-point lead midway through the third quarter. But Chaparral (16-4) cut it to to 40-36 on a clutch 3-point shot from freshman Aaron Jacob just before the buzzer.
The game stayed close from then on.
Chaparral's Tizell Lewis trimmed to lead to two points as the fourth quarter opened before McCaw hit the first of two dagger 3-point shots in the final frame. The first made it 43-38 — and was answered moments later by Chaparral's Tanner Giles.
McCaw wasn't done. He drilled another 3-point shot with 6:15 remaining, then added two free throws a minute later as ThunderRidge's lead grew to 48-43.
Chaparral, no stranger to big games after beating then-No. 1 Rock Canyon last week, held steady. Ronnie DeGray III, the Wolverines' junior star, scored one bucket and assisted on another as the margin slimmed to one with five minutes to go.
A minute after that, ThunderRidge — already missing 6-foot-7 center Kevin Sax due to injury — lost its leading scorer when Kaison Hammonds fouled out. Hammonds averages 16.1 points per game but was held scoreless on Tuesday. And 45 seconds later, junior Bailey Verk also fouled out.
Suddenly, the Grizzles were without two of their starters for the rest of the game.
But they still had Tyson Cruickshank and Austin Holt, who each scored 16 points. And they still had McCaw, who scored nine points in the fourth quarter.
"I just had the feeling that I had to step up," McCaw said. "Kaison is our star player, but if he's out, somebody's got to take over. I had to do it, and I'm glad I did it."
Said Ortiz: "He's been playing great. Kaison has carried us in many games, and Tyson has been very consistent, but Justin's stepped up when we needed him, and we needed him big tonight. He played tremendous."
After Chaparral cut the game to 53-51 with two minutes left, ThunderRidge's defense stood tall. McCaw hit the second of two free-throws to make it 54-51 with 9.9 seconds left, and then Holt hit two more in the final moments to make it 56-51.
"It's a pretty special win to get for No. 8, for any number," Ortiz said. "That's a special win."
Neither team was at full strength. ThunderRidge was missing Sax, while Chaparral was again without junior Hayden Dalton (left foot in a boot), and Kobe Sanders was sick and played limited minutes.
For Ortiz, win No. 400 was special, but the longtime figure has long said that's not why he coaches.
"I'm always reflecting," Ortiz said. "We had alumni guys here. I'm always thinking about that. And you reflect on our coaches. We've had a great group of coaches. ... I'm reflective of our whole program, all of my staff. My coaches never leave. We're really blessed. And we want a lot more wins than 400."
McCaw called Ortiz "the greatest coach I've ever played for."
"It was a great team win, and I'm very happy and proud of Ortiz," he said.
As for the win over the No. 1 team in the state — which avenged a 61-45 loss on Dec. 9?
It means "that we're the best team in Colorado," McCaw said.
Ortiz, now in his 22nd season, was more measured.
"We've got to learn from this," the coach said. "We've got to learn to play a little bit slower. We were too sped up. ... We've got to learn to play in this environment."