AURORA — One would think having to go face the top-ranked team in the state in their home gym would be a daunting task. It may even be enough for a built-in justification should a team accept the challenge, but fall short.
Someone didn't send that memo to Aurora Central on Tuesday night.
Going into Tuesday night's contest, Rangeview reigned supreme above all other Class 5A schools in the state, while their counterparts in Aurora Central (9-4 overall) came in with bad intentions as they hoped to deliver the Raiders their first loss of the year.
For three quarters it looked as if the Trojans could pull it off, until Shawn Palmer's Raiders proved to be too much as they overcame a nine-point halftime deficit helping lead them to a 68-56 win.
Led by senior Ladarius Thomas, the Trojans jumped on Rangeview (13-0) early in the first half with hot shooting from the perimeter, scoring 21 of their 39 first half points come from the 3-point line.
Thomas looked unguardable for the majority of the first half, as he notched 13 points in the first 16 minutes of regulation. At that point in the game, the only cheering that was heard non-stop was from Thomas' mother in the stands, who made sure every spectator knew her son was a supreme talent.
Going into halftime, Palmer knew his team had to make adjustments to claw back into the game and it started on the defensive end.
"We changed things up defensively and started trapping, getting into our matchup zone just to make them uncomfortable because they were so good in the first half and were very well prepared," Palmer said. "They're a talented and well-coached team, but we didn’t expect them to shoot the ball like that and they shot lights out."
As soon as the ball was inbounded to start the third quarter, the Raiders' defensive intensity was prevalent and suffocating. Having thrown out an extended trap-zone defense mixed in with a full-court press after made baskets, Rangeview forced two quick turnovers within the first two minutes of the third quarter — one of which led to a highlight-reel poster dunk from Kris Hollins to shift the momentum.
Trojans coach Ian Calvert responded with a quick timeout to try and calm his team. Rangeview went on to force six turnovers in the third quarter alone, but the Trojans did just enough offensively to stay ahead going into the fourth quarter, 48-47.
At the start of the quarter, the game changed immensely as the hot shooting that guided Aurora Central much of the night seemingly fizzled. The raining and draining of jumpers from the Trojans turned into brick after brick.
When asked about the stark contrast between halves, Calvert noted the shooting was one of the main catalysts into the downfall of the Trojans Tuesday night.
"We made shots," Calvert said when talking about the dominance his team displayed in the first half. "When we make shots, we're a pretty good team. But the problem is, like you saw in the second half, we didn't make shots and that always bites us in the butt."
Calvert was noticeably disappointed after the game, as he realized how big of an opportunity just slipped away from his team’s grasp. Yet he wasn't loss for hope as he knows that in three weeks his squad will get another crack at the top-ranked Raiders.
"We really built chemistry all week, we had a soul-searching conversation with the whole group and you could tell the energy has been much better than it has been all year," Calvert said. "We just have to make some of those layups and some of those guys have to step up and make plays to take pressure off of our high scoring guys and in turn, build the trust and keep building our confidence."
And while one side recovers from what could have been, the other celebrates in victory and acknowledges the adversity it took to remain unbeaten.
"They're a great team. They hit shots and they get to the rim. It was a difficult run and we stepped it up in the second half," said Elijah Reed, who had 22 points to lead his team. "We knew we were going to face adversity coming into the season, and this was one of those days, so we just focused and regrouped as a team to overcome the adversity."
Although Palmer knows how great of a team-building victory this is, he knows his squad has to be prepared every week for similar obstacles if they want to achieve their goals.
"This has been a grind and this is the sixth-consecutive difficult opponent that we've played. It was good adversity for us," he said. "Everybody's going to give us their best shot and we've got to be ready and play four quarters of good basketball."
For now, the Raiders can enjoy the glory of remaining atop of the rest, but Thursday they must prepare for another grind as they travel to Northglenn.