HIGHLANDS RANCH — The Friday night crowd was electric at The Grizzly Den where No. 1 Highlands Ranch traveled just down to the road to take on No. 2 Thunder Ridge.
And though Class 5A's No. 1 team trailed at half, Highlands Ranch rallied to take a 46-37 win on the road.
With a full capacity gym, all the energy seemed to shake up both teams at the start of play. It took over three minutes of missed layups and frequent unfinished possessions for the first basket to drop. After a few back-and-forth shots, the first quarter ended with an 11-6 Thunder Ridge lead, and an even louder bleacher buzz.
But in the second quarter, the Grizzlies wasted no time getting to the hoop, hitting an immediate 3-pointer to force an early timeout for the Falcons. The home squad continued to make plays and outside shots, with seniors Taylor Rusk and Madison Ward taking turns from the 3-point line.
The Falcons, meanwhile, could not get a break, with nearly each shot rolling off the rim.
At the close of the first half, Rusk hit a buzzer-beater from the paint to extend the Grizzlies lead and head to the locker room with an unexpected score of 25-12, holding their visitors — a team that has recorded four 80-plus point games this season — to merely six points in each the first and second quarter.
But the game was far from over.
In the second half, the Falcons came to life under the lead of sophomore sensation Leilah Vigil, who was under the basket for nearly every rebound, started executing at the line, and used her strength and post moves to cut the gap quickly.
Suddenly the game was within four and the Grizzlies' student section was silenced.
A 3-pointer from senior Brianne Stiers made it a one-point game and finished off a 14-2 Falcons run. In those eight minutes of play, Highlands Ranch tallied 18 points — three times what they scored in both the first and second quarter — to enter the final quarter down only 33-30.
The Falcons finally took their first lead of the game with just under six minutes left to play at 34-33. Rusk and her Grizzlies kept it close for a few possessions, but Vigil could not be stopped, hitting a fate-sealing, impossible hook shot as time trickled away.
The buzzer sounded with a scoreboard reading a come-from-behind Highlands Ranch victory of 46-37 as a flood of blue-clad students stormed the court.
Vigil finished with a double-double, tallying 15 rebounds and 21 points.
"In the first half we were unfocused and listening to the crowd. But coach told us that she knew we could do what we had been practicing, so we did," said the 16-year-old of her team's second-half transformation. "Without the positivity, we wouldn't have pulled the win. There was a lot of noise in this gym, but as a good player, you just have to focus in on the game."
Her head coach, Caryn Jarocki, found the reason for the latter half change, and ultimately the win, to be a simple product of performance.
"We shot the ball better and we played better defense," said Jarocki.
Highlands Ranch (14-1) will take on Legend at home next Tuesday, while Thunder Ridge (12-2) travels to Grandview the same evening.