DENVER – Valor Christian boys basketball coach Troy Pachner said when the 2017 postseason began that the Eagles would have to play more to their potential if they were to finally accomplish the lofty goal they fell just short of in 2016.
For the Eagles, who were disappointed with their state runner-up finish last season, that turned out not to be much of a problem this March.
In the Class 4A state championship game at the Denver Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, the Eagles (24-4) led nearly from wire-to-wire and pulled away late to beat No. 6 Lewis-Palmer (23-5) by a 68-55 margin. With the elusive championship game victory, the Eagles claimed the school’s first Colorado state title in boys basketball.
“We finally did it,” Eagles senior point guard Keisan Crosby said. “Last year we came so close and we weren’t able to put it away. This year, to come back here with a group of nine seniors and win this, it’s huge for us. We got the first banner in Valor boys basketball history.”
Crosby added that once the Eagles reached the 2016 Final 4, they weren’t happy with their play in seven of the final eight quarters of last season. This year’s Final 4, and the state title game in particular, was a different story.
Leading 15-8 after the first quarter, the top-seeded Eagles pushed their lead to as many as 13 points in the second quarter. But back-to-back 3-pointers from Rangers senior Drew Blomberg and a converted and-1 from sophomore Joel Scott (14.1 points per game) cut the lead back down to six in the final minute of the first half.
At the break, the Eagles led 27-21.
After turning the ball over 13 times in the first half, the Rangers settled down in the second and played more like the team that won 19 straight games leading up to Saturday’s title game. They cut the Valor lead to four points midway through the third quarter but Eagles senior Kayle Knuckles (15.5 points per game) responded to the lead-threatening run with an immediate 3-pointer at the other end.
“We really felt like we got it going at the end of the third quarter,” Eagles leading scorer Jalen Sanders (22.4 points per game) said. “They cut the lead down to six at halftime but then we were able to get it back up to the 10-to-15 range in the third.”
Knuckles combined with teammate Dylan McCaffrey, who played sparingly in the first half after picking up three early fouls, to score 13 third-quarter points. The pair helped the Eagles finish the third quarter on a 10-4 run that pushed the Eagles’ lead to 44-34 to start the fourth.
Sanders took over and Knuckles scored 12 of his game-high 32 points in the fourth quarter, and the Eagles kept the Rangers from getting closer than eight points to ride out the win. It was a career-high scoring night for Knuckles. Sanders finished with 18 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Crosby had six assists to go with 12 points.
“We’ve gotten a lot of experience and growth over the past two years,” said Pachner, who also led the D’Evelyn boys to a 3A state title in 2004. “A lot of people like to look at culminating moments like this, but for us it’s really about the process. All seven of our seniors that play a lot of minutes have been exceptional (in the Final 4) and tonight we always had six or seven guys who were constantly contributing to our team’s effort.”
For Lewis-Palmer, Scott lead the team with 15 points. Blomberg finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, while senior Angelo Battistelli (12.9 ppg) had 12 points and seven rebounds.
“Valor is a really good team and I told our guys before that this is going to be a game between two pretty good basketball teams that are very good at running their stuff,” Rangers head coach Bill Benton said. “We uncharacteristically missed a lot of layups tonight. We got the shots at the rim we wanted to and we didn’t knock them down. It was about the details.
“This game really isn’t a culmination of our season. Our guys did a great job of battling through everything all year long. It wasn’t the way we wanted it to end up but this game shouldn’t define these young men, or their season.”