AURORA -- A No. 12 seed implies that a team snuck in to the tournament. A 12 seed usually means a first-round exit against a far stronger team.
Rampart is not your typical 12 seed.
On a night when another of the final seeds, Loveland, gave Continental power Legend everything they could handle in a 50-44 Legend survival, Rampart did them one better by taking down fifth-seeded Cherokee Trail in Aurora 67-64.
In one of the more intriguing 5 vs. 12 matchups in years: Rampart entered the playoffs 17-6 and 6-4 in Colorado Springs Metro League, tied for second place in the conference. Cherokee Trail was 9-14, 6-8, but had played one of the toughest schedules in 5A and competed well in the ultra-competitive Centennial League.
Cherokee Trail had superior athleticism and team speed, but Rampart’s poise, experience, half-court offense and zone defense allowed them to go into the Cougar’s Den and snatch a victory.
“Our number one key to the game was try to get it to a half-court game,” said Rampart coach Patrick Simpson. “Once we were there, move it a little bit, try to attack them and get to the free-throw line. We had bursts where we were able to get it into half-court and bursts where we were just chaotic up and down.
“This is a really good team,” Simpson said about Cherokee Trail. “They’re young, they’re aggressive and they’re athletic. They do a lot of good things.”
The game was hotly contested throughout as Cherokee Trail had a slight 15-14 advantage at the end of the first quarter. The Cougars used their speed and fastbreak ability to wreak havoc on Rampart and threatened to run away in the second quarter with a 10-1 run to take a 25-15 lead, but the Rams roared back with an 11-0 run to secure a 26-25 edge at the break.
In a back-and-forth third, Rampart’s Donovan Oldham was fouled on a last-second shot. Oldham buried both free-throws to give the Rams a 43-40 advantage headed into the final quarter.
Rampart jumped on the Cougars right away 50-40 with 5:22 remaining as Cherokee Trail was out of sync offensively and continued its cold shooting from the perimeter. Thomas Fife, a senior guard and co-captain at Rampart, was automatic at the charity-stripe making eight for ten at the line in the last quarter and kept the pressure on Cherokee Trail.
“We shoot a lot of free-throws,” Simpson said. “One of our goals is to make more free-throws than our opponent shoots, so we talk about defensively how to do that and then offensively we’ve got to be aggressive. We made them tonight and we needed to hit every one of them.”
Rampart imposed their style of play, efficient half-court offense, slower pace and shot-making on Cherokee Trail much of the game, but the Cougars made one desperate final push and applied a full-court press in the fourth to speed up the game. The press worked well for a few minutes and Cherokee Trail finally saw its offense heat up as it went on a late 10-4 run to pull within 63-60 of Rampart with 41 seconds left.
The Cougars had hope when Oldham missed a rare pair of free-throws for Rampart with 19 seconds remaining and a 65-61 lead. David Thornton missed a shot at the other end for Cherokee Trail and Tre Young displayed ice-water in his veins as he buried two at the line.
The young but talented Cougars never gave up as Tyler Larkin, who played big all night, cashed a 3-pointer to make it 67-64 with 2.4 on the clock. In a wild last play, Dillon Garcia stole Rampart’s inbound and launched a trey. It grazed the front of the rim.
“The kids did a great job of staying level and composed,” Simpson said after the dramatic finish. “We talk about that a lot. Last year we played with pretty much the same squad and we made mistakes and we lost those games. We ended up getting a 12 seed last year as well, but we weren’t the same team. This year we stayed way more composed, way more level, and we made our free-throws down the stretch.”
Rampart was bounced in the first round a year ago by Overland 63-55 in a relatively close final score, but was down 29-14 at the half. This year they displayed the poise and leadership, along with several weapons, needed to apply pressure on Cherokee Trail the entire evening.
Rampart’s zone defense frustrated the Cougars into several turnovers and helped slow the game down. The Rams gave up transition points in stretches, but overall they defended the fastbreak well.
“We knew coming in that they would try to push the ball,” said Oldham, a junior guard and Rampart’s leading scorer this season. “We knew we had to get back on defense. Our coach kept stressing that they try to get a lot of shots up. We had to rebound and limit their second-chance points and I think we did that pretty well.”
On offense, Rampart’s balance was impressive. Tre Young, a long and lanky 6-foot-6 forward, was effective in the paint and showed off his versatility and scoring ability with 19 points. Oldham slashed his way to 14 points, Cameron Hacker was a threat from deep and knocked down three triples, scoring eleven points, and Thomas Fife scored all ten of his points at the charity-stripe.
Rampart played confident and loose. They rose to the occasion as the slight underdog, but as an unusually strong low seed.
Oldham said Rampart did feel slightly disrespected by their placement in the tournament, but said he is used to it.
“We know that there’s not a lot of respect for the Metro League and the Springs, so we took it with what we have," Oldham said. "That’s all we needed to do."
Said Simpson: “I think I worry about it a little more than the kids do. We felt like we were better than a 12, but there’s a lot of good teams.
“My biggest concern is keeping them level at practice,” he added. “I didn’t want a 12 seed, the disappointment of that, to cause them to lose a game. I thought my captains, Donovan Oldham and Thomas Fife, they did such a good job of just keeping practice business as usual.”
On a team that features some of the premier underclassmen in Colorado in sophomores Ronnie Barfield and David Thornton and freshman Jaizec Lottie, senior guards Tyler Larkin (14 points) and Dillon Garcia (12 points) led the way for Cherokee Trail. Larkin gave Rampart trouble with his quickness and speed in the open floor and Garcia kept the Cougars in the game with several big shots, but in the end it was just too much Rampart.
Cherokee Trail concludes its season 9-15, but have the returning talent to be one of the better teams in the state next year.
Rampart is now 18-6 and will travel to the Western Slope to take on No. 4 Grand Junction on Saturday in a battle between two teams with a chip on their shoulder. Grand Junction earned a No. 4 seed despite a lofty 20-2 record and are eager to prove their worth, as well.