Columbine boys basketball edges No. 3 Ralston Valley in 5A Jeffco action

LITTLETON — Arguably Jeffco’s best male basketball player — Columbine senior Luke O’Brien — and Jeffco’s best male athlete — Ralston Valley senior Caleb Rillos — went head-to-head Wednesday night.

“I thought it was a great battle,” Ralston Valley coach Chris Braketa said of the O’Brien vs. Rillos match-up. “As a competitor you like to see two athletes go at it. Both of them did great things. It’s fun to watch really good players reach their potential in a game like this. They both played outstanding.”

In the end, the future University of Colorado hoopster — O’Brien — led Columbine to a 57-55 victory, ending the 7-game winning streak by Ralston Valley. O’Brien poured in a game-high 26 points.

Ralston Valley senior Caleb Rillos (21) works on trying to get a shot off while being guarded by Columbine senior Justin Lohrenz on Wednesday night. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)

“He (Rillos) is one of the best defenders that has guarded me so far. He is a really good player,” O’Brien said. “He is going to do really great things up at Air Force.”

Rillos — three-sport athlete in football, basketball and lacrosse — actually celebrated signing to play football at the Air Force Academy in the morning Wednesday. He finished with 24 points for Ralston Valley — No. 3 in the Class 5A boys basketball rankings.

“Luke is difficult to guard,” Rillos admitted. “I thought we did a pretty good job on his, but he got to the free-throw line more than we expected. He is a great player.”

O’Brien was 10-for-14 from the line, including making seven free throws in the fourth quarter.

Ralston Valley (15-3, 2-1 in 5A Jeffco) hadn’t loss since a 5-point loss to Legend nearly a month ago. The Mustangs had their chances in the final seconds. A missed layup, a pair of missed free throws and not being able to get of a shot before the buzzer sounded marked the first conference loss for Ralston Valley.

“This is one of the games I’ve wanted to win the most,” Rillos said. “We are going to keep our heads up and keep battling. We’ll learn from this. It will actually help us going into this final stretch before playoffs.”

Columbine (14-3, 3-1) had to get the victory to have a realistic shot of claiming a third straight conference title. A conference opening loss to Valor Christian gives Columbine little room for error.

The Rebels turned to O’Brien and Justin Lohrenz in the final quarter against Ralston Valley.

“They had to and that is what senior captains do. They need to step up in games like this,” Columbine coach Clay Thielking said of O’Brien and Lohrenz stepping up in crunch time. “They weren’t perfect, but I thought the effort and composure was there from start to finish. That is what you need to beat a great team like Ralston Valley.”

Columbine junior Tristan Alward (1) is tightly covered by Ralston Valley senior Kyle Zigich during the Class 5A Jeffco League game Wednesday night. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)

Lohrenz finished with 13 points. The future defensive lineman at the Washington State University made two key free throws with 24 seconds left to give the Rebels a 56-55 lead.

“In the end it came down to me and Luke,” Lohrenz said of him and O’Brien combining to score all of the Rebels’ 14 points in the fourth quarter. “We are the captains and the leaders. The team reflects on what we do. We had to keep everyone together.”

O’Brien admitted he nearly had a costly mistake in the final seconds. After making the first of two free throws with 6.7 seconds remaining to give Columbine a 57-55 lead, he missed the second from the line and then fouled Ralston Valley senior Dario Greco with 5.6 seconds left going after the rebound.

“That was a dumb play by me,” O’Brien said. “Thankfully they missed the free throws.”

Greco missed the first free throw. He purposely missed the second hoping the Mustangs could grab the rebound and get off a game-tying shot, but Columbine junior Luke Garrelts grabbed the rebound and got fouled.

It wasn’t over yet, Garrelts missed both free throws with 3.9 seconds left. Rillos grabbed the rebound, fired an outlet pass to senior Caden Gigstad who dribbled furiously down the court, but couldn’t get a shot off before time expired.

“There were a lot of interesting scenarios down the stretch,” Thielking said. “It was a rollercoaster. Our guys stayed poised and Ralston Valley did too. I just thought it was just a great high school basketball game.”

Dakota Ridge (8-10, 3-0) actually takes over first place alone in the conference. Arvada West, Columbine, Ralston Valley and Valor Christian are all one-game back in the loss column for the race to the 5A Jeffco League title.

“It’s not in our hands anymore,” O’Brien said of the Rebels trying to win a third straight 5A Jeffco League title. “We need to do what we can and win out.”

Columbine has a non-league game at home against Mountain Vista on Thursday night before returning to conference play at Bear Creek on Wednesday, Feb. 12.

Ralston Valley hosts rival Pomona at 7 p.m. Friday night.

“We learn from everything, but you still have to turn the page,” Braketa said. “There is still a lot to play for.”

Columbine junior Garrett Rogers (2) makes a move on Ralston Valley senior Caden Gigstad during the first half Wednesday night at Columbine High School. The Rebels took a 57-55 victory to hand the Mustangs their first loss in Class 5A Jeffco League play. (Dennis Pleuss/Jeffco Athletics)