AURORA — A hardwood clash between George Washington and Overland wasn’t just another season opener.
With super athletes, a rocking atmosphere, a defending Class 5A champion and a collection of some of the finest young guards in Colorado, Tuesday’s non-conference showdown at Overland had a playoff atmosphere on the first day of December.
After mounting a huge lead for much of the game, the Trailblazers, the No. 1-ranked team in the Class 5A preseason poll, held off the youthful, guard-driven and No. 4-ranked Patriots 86-79 to begin their title defense 1-0.
With four senior starters, 6-foot-10 Indiana recruit De’Ron Davis, Reggie Gibson, Alijah Halliburton, and Jervae Robinson, along with junior Asad Yousef, Overland appeared the more seasoned team from the get-go as they led 8-0 two minutes in.
Davis had a monstrous early dunk, with several more coming later, and a beautiful block on back-to-back plays in the first quarter and the home team held a 19-10 lead at the end of the first quarter. They pushed the lead to 25-11 and 34-15 soon after, before a George Washington 13-5 run trimmed the deficit to 39-28 at the break.
Davis (13 points) and Robinson (11) had wonderful chemistry early as the Trailblazers worked the ball inside and out.
In the third, Overland pushed the margin to around 20 points much of the quarter as Halliburton had two dunks, one of which was an inbounds alley-oop, crowd-hyping flush. Davis continued his strong play with a hard spin move into a one-handed dunk. He was aggressive throughout and found success with a soft mid-range jump shot, as well.
Through three quarters, Overland led George Washington 59-42. With 5 minutes and 43 seconds to go, the game seemed just about in the books as the home team still held a 65-50 lead.
That’s when the Patriots, short on experience but with a boat load of athleticism and skill, began to mount a comeback.
Slowly, they trimmed the lead down to 76-65 with 1:37 to go, then 78-71 with just over a minute left. Junior guard Calvin Fugett, who went absolutely crazy in the second half with 23 points — every last one of them critical down the stretch — buried a three with just under a minute to go to make it 80-74.
Jervay Green, after an Overland turnover and foul, made a pair of free throws to make it 80-76 with 49 seconds left. Halliburton and Robinson went a combined three of four from the line to push the lead to 83-76, but Fugett just wouldn’t go away as he was fouled on a three-pointer, cashed every one of them, and the Patriots were still alive only down 83-79 with 20 seconds on the clock.
In the end, despite a monstrous 29 points in the game’s final 5 minutes and 43 seconds, George Washington came up just short as Overland freshman Steven Hayes made a fastbreak layup and Davis one of two showing from the free throw line preserved the win.
For the Overland players and coaches alike, with such lofty expectations placed on them with a loaded roster back from a state championship season, Tuesday’s win came with a mixture of feelings afterwards.
“I’m trying to keep perspective and realize that opening night we just beat a really, really good team, but I’m also pretty frustrated,” Overland coach Danny Fisher said. “With so much senior leadership, we finished the game really, really bad. There’s so many things that happened that we can learn from that are just kind of digging at me right now.”
“It was a sloppy win,” Davis added. “We just have to tighten up our overall guard play and our all-around team play. We just have to work on a couple key things and cut down our turnovers.”
Nonetheless, a win is a win and a season opening victory over the defending Denver Prep League champions was a solid debut. Davis finished the game with 26 points. Halliburton, a great energy guy with explosive leaping ability, had 19.
Robinson, after starting on a Final Four team as a sophomore, went to a prep school in Oklahoma last season. He’s back in Aurora, looking poised to provide scoring punch to take some pressure off Davis. He had 11 first half points and finished the game with 19.
“He brings so much skill,” Fisher said of Robinson. “He and Reggie can play really well off each other. He’s a guy we can isolate who can take a little pressure off De’Ron. He’ll be big for us.”
And so, the Trailblazers — even with a great point guard in Austin Conway now playing in the Mountain West at Wyoming, and a starting guard in Padiet Wang moving out-of-state his senior year —could be powerful again. They’ll look to clean up a few mistakes that helped George Washington get back into Tuesday’s game.
“We have to make free throws and we have to close out a little better.” Fisher said. “We have to handle pressure a little better. That’ll be the main thing.”
As for the Patriots, with a starting lineup comprised of only juniors and sophomores, with juniors and sophomores coming off the bench for key minutes, they are still learning. But there’s talent, a lot of it.
Both Fugett and Kountz racked up 29 points. Kountz, generally considered the best sophomore prospect in Colorado, is a 6-foot-3 left-handed guard with a ton of ability. Fugett is one of the fastest players around.
A number of others, including Calvin’s brother Jon’il, a sophomore, and junior guard Jervay Green, are outstanding athletes themselves.
Kountz said the Patriots have a goal of making it to Boulder for the Final Four this season. For now, they are just taking it one game at a time as they continue to grow together.
“We just have to get going earlier,” he said. “We started off too slow. We tried to win it in the last six minutes.”