GOLDEN – Walking around with a piece of net around his neck, the smile on the face of Colorado Springs Christian senior Chris Hildenbrand could not have grown any bigger.
It was simply that kind of night for every member of the Lions program. Having come up empty so many times, Colorado Springs Christian put the past to rest Saturday night at Lockridge Arena in a big way. Samuel Howard scored 21 points and the Lions withstood a late surge from Colorado Academy to emerge with a 55-52 victory and the team’s first Class 3A state championship since 2003.
“I’m just beyond belief,” Hildenbrand said. “We worked so hard for this and it’s unbelievable. I just thank God for blessing this team and keeping us healthy. I’m so thankful – I wouldn’t want to win this with any other guys.”
After four consecutive years of seeing its season come to an end at the hands of a Metro League opponent – including last season in the state semifinals – Colorado Springs Christian had to knock off a pair of Metro foes in two nights for the right to lift the championship trophy.
“After losing to Holy Family last year, we knew we had to be more mentally tough,” Hildenbrand said. “Coming out here (Friday) and beating Lutheran – a great team that shoots lights out – we knew it wasn’t over. Defense wins championships, and that’s what we practice day in and day out.”
The Lions (26-1) seemed to have the game well in-hand after taking an 11-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. But much as it did Friday night in a semifinal victory over top-seeded Faith Christian, Colorado Academy (20-7) fought back.
The Mustangs closed the gap to five points on a couple of occasions, but the Lions hit a few key free throws and did enough to hold Colorado Academy at bay.
“We saw what they were able to do firsthand when I was a freshman. We were up seven points in the regional championship game with a minute left, and they came back and won,” Howard said. “Our coach told us ‘they’re not going to quit … we’ve got to keep our heads and execute to the very end.’”
Justin Engesser added 13 points for Colorado Springs Christian, which did a solid job of holding Colorado Academy junior Justin Bassey in check for much of the night. Bassey had only two points in the first half and drew three charging fouls, but he did finally get untracked with 12 points in the fourth quarter.
Bassey finished with 16 points and Christian Hyatt added 15, including a deep 3-pointer that made it a two-point game with one second to go. Howard closed out the scoring with a free throw and the Mustangs were unable to get a final shot off.
Hildenbrand drew the task of trying to mark Bassey for much of the night.
“(Justin) is one heck of a player. I just trusted my help, and if he got by me, I knew we had our ‘twin towers’ in the back,” Hildenbrand said in reference to the 6-foot-7 Howard and the 6-9 Nic Doherty. “I just tried my best and trusted my teammates.”
On the other end of the floor, Colorado Springs Christian did a good job of working the ball inside to Howard. When the Lions tried to converge on the junior, his teammates hit some big shots from the perimeter.
“We always like to get the ball inside because that makes it easier to get open shots for the outside guys,” Howard said. “I don’t know what their gameplan was, but we executed ours.”
Colorado Academy, which advanced to the 3A state title game for the second year in a row, graduates only two seniors in Chris Kuelling and Grant Sapkin. The Lions lose four, but Hildenbrand said he’s confident the players coming back will make another deep run.
“I’m so proud of every single guy on our roster, from the 12th man to our top guy. They just worked so hard to get back. They worked so hard in practice, they worked so hard in the offseason,” CSCS coach Mark Engesser said. “I’m very proud of every single one of our guys.”