“I’m really grateful for how it ended up”
The Crested Butte Titans boys’ basketball team dominated the Southern Peaks league, charged through districts and shocked the 1A big-wigs in the Great Eight at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC) in Greeley Thursday through Saturday, March 12-14, falling one game shy of a state 1A title.
With all of the regular season goals met, seniors John Wright and Robbie Holleran set a new goal for the squad as they prepared for the Great Eight tournament.
“We had achieved every goal we set for the year and John and Robbie said it was time to set a new goal — win the tournament,” says coach Robin Loyed. “We were in it to win it.”
The Titans met the Flagler Panthers in the first game of the Great Eight on Thursday and used the opportunity to make a statement that they and their 24-0 record were for real.
Flagler brought the top point guard in the state and solid perimeter shooting with them, but the Titans were determined to shut him down.
Holleran did what he could with a bad ankle, but picked up two quick fouls and the Titans switched to a zone trap to keep the Flagler guard in check.
It took four minutes for the Titans to prove their ilk, as a three-point play by Wright gave the Titans a 9-7 lead. Wright drained a turnaround jumper on the next possession and then put together another three-point play to give the Titans a 13-9 lead, forcing Flagler to call a time out.
Flagler fought back but Holleran sank a running jumper at the buzzer to put the Titans back on top 16-13 at the end of the first quarter.
Henry Linehan and Chris Sharpe worked hard at the top of the zone trap to shut off open looks to the basket and the two teams played three minutes of scoreless basketball in the second quarter.
“We moved to a zone and the zone just baffled them,” says Loyed. “Chris and Henry did a phenomenal job.”
Linehan broke the ice with two big free throws as the Titans went on to outscore the Panthers 9-3 in the second quarter to take a 25-16 lead into halftime.
“At that point, everyone believed we were good enough to put those guys away,” says Loyed.
Flagler battled back in the third quarter to take a 31-27 lead with one minute left, but Wright closed the third quarter with a five-point burst, cutting the Panthers’ lead to one.
The Titans exploded in the fourth quarter to outscore Flagler 21-13, led by Wright with 15 points.
The Titans moved to their spread offense and Crested Butte hit 13 of 14 free-throws in the fourth quarter to ice the 53-46 win.
“I’m really proud of their free throw shooting,” says Loyed. “Thirteen of 14 in the fourth quarter in the first round of a state tournament is just amazing.”
The victory pushed the Titans into the state semi-final game against the Otis Bulldogs on Friday, March 13.
The semi-final game
It was a tough beginning for the Titans on Friday the 13th as the team woke up in their Greeley accommodations with no hot water. While tournament time should be all about wins and ice baths to stop the swelling, a hot shower always helps keep players fresh. Rumor had it that Wright was left wandering the halls of the hotel in nothing but a towel in a desperate search for a ritualistic game-day hot shower.
Fortunately, athletic director Bob Piccaro was on-scene, and while he couldn’t squeeze a single drop of hot water from the building for the team, he did find the Titans a local high school gymnasium for some game-day shoot-around time to stay loose prior to the 4 p.m. game.
The Otis Bulldogs were coming off a 13-game winning streak including a huge upset win over the number-two-seeded team the night before and were poised to carry their momentum through the Titans and onto the finals.
What Otis didn’t realize is one, Wright really is as good as his stats say he is; and two, when Sharpe is on from three-point range, he is dead on.
“He was a relative unknown going into the next round,” says Loyed. “That was the strength of Chris’s role all season long. He was almost a secret weapon.”
Looking at the line-up alone, Otis posed a problem for the Titans, with three big guys underneath—think six-foot-three and taller and 200-plus pounds, a starting six-foot-one point guard and a couple of wing players with speed and huge shooting range.
Despite the pre-game numbers, Wright and the team believed a win was well within their reach.
“Otis was quick and could hustle but we knew we could beat them,” says Wright. “We thought our defense would give them trouble.”
The first two Titans possessions provided a harbinger for the rest of the game.
Wright opened the game pulling up in traffic to hit a 12-foot jumper and Sharpe sank his first three-point attempt of the game from deep in the corner.
The first quarter finished with the teams locked in a 15-15 tie but the Titans exploded in the second quarter, outscoring Otis 23-9. Wright hit a couple of free-throws and Sharpe drained his third three-pointer of the game to put Crested Butte on top 20-18.
Holleran drove to the hole for a basket and Sharpe hit another three-pointer to give the Titans a nine-point cushion midway through the second quarter.
With Sharpe on fire, Otis was forced to adjust; the move opened the door wide for Wright. Wright seized the opportunity to fire off three consecutive three-pointers. After setting up for the first two, Wright dusted his defender and then pulled up off the dribble to hit his third from deep, giving the Titans a 38-24 lead at the half.
Wright’s crowning moment came in the third quarter when Otis started chipping away at the Titans’ lead.
With Linehan off the floor, the Bulldogs’ defensive pressure started to force uncharacteristic Titan turnovers.
The Bulldogs found their stroke from deep to cut into the Titans’ lead. At that point, Wright took the game into his own hands, reigning supreme with a series of short-range jumpers and end-to-end runs.
One final three-pointer from the Bulldogs cut the Titans’ lead down to five points with one minute left in the third quarter, sending the Bulldog fans and team band into a deafening roar.
Linehan returned to the floor to bring some stability back to the Titans offense and Wright closed the quarter with yet another stop-and-pop jumper off the dribble to maintain a seven-point Titans lead.
Two key plays early in the fourth set the Titans up for the win.
The first came from Linehan. With Otis concentrating on Sharpe and Wright, Linehan was left open and popped an eight-foot jumper early in the fourth quarter. The second came from freshman Anton Peck, who pulled down an offensive rebound off a missed free-throw and was fouled.
When Peck joined the team last summer, his shot was unorthodox and his free throw was non-existent. On Friday night, the instruction from Loyed during practices and the work by Peck came together, as the freshman stepped to the line in the state semi-final game and hit both shots, rebuilding the Titans’ lead to 11.
The lead gave the Titans room to move into their patented game-closing spread offense, but Otis was wise to the ploy and immediately started fouling the Titans, forcing them to win the game at the line in the final five minutes.
“That five minutes became the longest five minutes of my life,” says Loyed.
Crested Butte hit 16 of 24 free throws down the stretch to seal the 78-68 win and earn a trip to the championship game against the Caliche Buffaloes.
Wright finished the game with 36 points, 14 rebounds and five assists. Sharpe threw in 21 points and had five steals. Holleran posted a triple-double with 15 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists, not to mention an additional six steals.
“All three seniors had an amazing game,” says Loyed.
“We were fired up for that game for sure,” says Wright. “The seven three’s [three-pointers] in the first half helped out. That gave us a lead we could hold onto.”
As for his performance, Wright says, “It’s win or go home, so you got to pull out all the stops. I was hitting shots and getting more confidence.”
That left one more challenge at hand for the Titans: the Caliche Buffaloes.
The championship game
To put the challenge into perspective, Caliche has been on a three-year quest for the 1A title. Actually, more like a five-year quest, as a fan behind me in the stands explained. Their coach started working with the team when they were in eighth grade.
Two years ago, they finished third in the state. Last year, they lost in the finals. This year, with 10 returning seniors, they beat the number-one 2A team in the state in the regular season and were determined to bring home the title. So much so that their fans started filling the UNC gymnasium at 1 p.m. for the 5:15 p.m. game.
Despite the overwhelming odds, the Titans remained confident heading into the championship game on Saturday, March 14.
“Our whole year was aimed at getting into the final against Caliche,” says Loyed. “We’d have to play the game of our lifetime to beat them.”
For the first eight minutes of the game, the Titans were close to playing the game they needed to win. Wright picked up where he left off the day before, draining a turnaround jumper on the opening possession. Holleran drove the lane and finished with a bucket and a free-throw for a three-point play. Wright hit two free-throws and the Titans were on top 7-4.
The Buffaloes then rattled off a 13-2 run and threatened to end the game right then and there, had it not been for Holleran. While the Caliche defense mauled Wright every time he touched the ball, Holleran found a lane to the basket for a second three-point play and Jake Grogg dropped in a short jumper to pull the Titans to within three points at the end of the first quarter.
The Titans held close through the first four minutes of the second quarter as Holleran picked off passes and scored and Wright hit another turnaround jumper to hold the Caliche lead to three.
But with ten seniors on the Caliche bench, fresh legs got the best of the Titans as the Buffaloes closed the first half with a 13-4 run to take a 36-24 lead into halftime.
Despite a three-pointer from Sharpe and an end-to-end run by Wright, the Buffaloes wore the Titans down, shuttling in players and maintaining their patient offense and nearly impenetrable full-court pressure.
Caliche built a 23-point lead by the end of the third quarter and with Grogg, Peck and Wright all fouling out in the fourth, the Buffaloes cruised to a 69-44 win.
Holleran ended his high school career in top form, scoring his final high school basket with a turn-around 14-foot fade-away jumper and led the team with 19 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists.
Wright scored 16 and pulled down 11 rebounds and Sharpe finished his career with two three-pointers for six points.
“We all thought we had a chance going in, but their depth was hard to hang with,” says Wright. “They had a good 12 guys. There was no weak link anywhere on the court.”
Wright closed the tournament averaging 28 points and 13 rebounds per game and was named to the all-tournament team for the second year in a row.
“Can’t really ask for more. We had a good five or six games down the stretch,” says Wright. “It would have been nice to cap it off with a win. I’m really grateful for how it ended up.”
“It’s pretty amazing that we got as far as we did,” says Loyed. “These guys amazed me game after game after game. They just went out and found a way to win the game. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”