HIGHLANDS RANCH — Sometimes games befitting of an atmosphere that the Denver Coliseum is sure to offer in the coming weeks happen before teams can even reach the building. Playoff basketball has a way of bringing out thrilling moments and gut wrenching outcomes and that's even in the early rounds.
Happiness, heartbreak and jubilation were all on display at Valor Christian High School for the Class 5A boys basketball Sweet 16. Valor started fast. Eaglecrest rallied. The teams exchanged blows late.
But a 60-52 win ensured only the Eagles will advance to this weekend's Great 8 just northeast of downtown Denver.
The beneficiaries of a 7-0 run to start the game, the Valor Christian put belief in themselves and their teammates that they could live to fight another day.
"I think our guys have been pretty focused on coming out and being ready to go from the beginning," Valor coach AJ Kuhle said. "When you start well, usually you finish well."
That was certainly the case. The Eagles (19-6 overall) scored 15 points in the first quarter and 23 in the fourth. In the final eight minutes of the game, the team shot 11-for-13 from the free throw line.
That's a big difference in an eight-point game.
"We'll get in practice and we'll be tired after running and we'll come out and Coach makes us shoot free throws," AJ Kula said. "He tells us to make them both."
Kula scored a team-high 12 points, eight of which came from the charity stripe. Amondo Miller, Talin Unruh and Roger Rosengarten also scored in double figures.
As balanced as the scoring was, the defensive effort for the Eagles was arguably more impressive, specifically in the first half. Ty Robinson came into the game averaging 13.3 points per game for the Raptors (17-8) but was held to one in the first half.
"It was a big thing for us," Unruh said. "Our coach did a great job with the scouting report and it was an awesome thing to see all of our guys defend him."
But a kid like Robinson can't be held down every minute he's on the floor. He came out firing in the second half, scoring 10 of his game-high 16 points in the third quarter.
"I probably should've gone to him one or two more times down the stretch," Eaglecrest coach Jarris Krapcha said. "He had a big momentum dunk, but the momentum got lost pretty quick."
With Robinson's intensity dialed up, the Raptors jumped right back in the game. Zion Rickard sank a pair of free throws with three minutes, 29 seconds left in the third quarter to give Eaglecrest a 30-29 lead, its first lead of the game.
But the Eagles refused to let down. Each time Eaglecrest took the lead or got close to retaking the lead, Valor stretched it back to five or seven points.
And that was good enough to keep the game out of reach.
"It's a group that's played a lot of basketball together and they care about each other," Kuhle said. They know that in the games there are ups and downs and they just have to be consistent in their behavior."
The Eagles will meet George Washington in the Great 8 following the Patriots' win over Ralston Valley.
Valor and GW met earlier in the year so there is some familiarity with each other heading into the weekend.
"We beat them by (11)," Unruh said. "We just have to play as a team like we did tonight and we'll be fine."