DENVER — After struggling from the free-throw line in a Class 5A boys basketball quarterfinal victory over Smoky Hill last weekend, George Washington coach Reggie Hammons made sure his team made those struggles a priority.
The very next practice, the Patriots spent the entire time putting in work from the foul line. Hammons’ message to his team was simple.
“The very first practice we shot free throws for the whole day,” he said. “I kept on telling them it’s going to come down to free throws.”
With a return trip to the 5A state championship game hanging in the balance Friday night, the Patriots showed they took the lesson to heart. Devon Jones hit a free throw with 1.6 seconds remaining in regulation to force overtime, and the Patriots were 9-of-10 from the line in OT to secure a 47-41 Final 4 victory at Denver Coliseum.
George Washington will take on Grandview — a team making its first championship game appearance — at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday at the Coliseum.
“We haven’t conquered our goal yet, but this is a big step,” said Patriots senior Jon’il Fugett, who was 7-of-8 from the free-throw line in overtime and came up with a critical steal. “We’re going to celebrate, but – short memory.”
The Patriots (22-5), who have won 15 consecutive games, fell to Eaglecrest in the 2017 championship game. George Washington is seeking its first state title since winning the 6A crown in 1994, but will have to get past a Wolves team that knocked off two of the top three seeds in Chaparral and ThunderRidge.
“They’re well-coached. They’ve got some bigs,” Hammons said. “I’ll probably go home and watch some film.”
George Washington nearly didn’t get the opportunity to play Saturday night. A 10-point lead late in the third quarter Friday eventually disappeared, as Rock Canyon (24-3) took the lead with 7.2 seconds remaining on a Tyson Gilbert lay-in.
Jones was fouled on the other end, but missed the first attempt. After a timeout, Jones came back out and drained the second shot to tie the game at 36-36.
Jaylen Eikenberg put the Jaguars up by two with a pair of free throws early in overtime, and Shawn’Trell White matched those attempts to make it a 38-38 game. Mo Diallo had a huge block for the Patriots on the other end, and Fugett hit 1-of-2 shots after being fouled.
Fugett, who scored a team-high 16 points, then came up with a steal and was fouled again, hitting both shots. He was a perfect 6-for-6 in the final 65 seconds to secure the victory.
“I think in the beginning of the season, we just didn’t have that confidence and didn’t trust each other,” Hammons said. “I think now we trust each other. I think Jon’il is one of the leaders, and when it’s down the stretch, we put the ball in his hands.”
After needing a Fugett buzzer-beater to defeat Smoky Hill 42-41 in the quarterfinals, George Washington once again proved it has the clutch gene over the past few weeks.
“We like that. We want an exciting game,” Fugett said. “We knew it was going to be close. Rock Canyon’s a great team. We came through in the end, we executed, and that’s all you ask for.”
Tyson Gilbert finished with 16 points for Rock Canyon and Sam Masten added 14 as the Jaguars fell just short in the state semifinals for the second year in a row.
Grandview has won 10 games in a row, and like the Patriots, has played its best basketball down the stretch.
“We’re still going to need the energy,” Fugett said. “Just keep it going. Keep the same mind-set. We’ve got to win — period.”