Alex K.W. Schultz
Special to Colorado Community Media
This one had all the best ingredients: the top two boys basketball teams in the state of Colorado, rivalry, history, talent and over a thousand fans squeezed in tight, ready to take it all in.
And what a show it was.
Inside a lively, raucous, standing-room-only Mountain Vista gym on Feb. 2, the host Golden Eagles, ranked No. 2 in Colorado, welcomed their friends from down the road and the state’s top-ranked squad — the Rock Canyon Jaguars.
When the curtain had dropped on the 32-minute duel, the state’s No. 1 had also been dropped as Vista rode big performances from seniors Radek Homer and Caden Stevens to a 62-52 win, snapping Canyon’s 15-game winning streak in the process.
“It was crazy,” the 6-foot-9 Stevens, who scored a game-high 22 points and blocked nine shots, said of the atmosphere inside the building. “I love playing against Canyon because their student section always shows out and our student section always shows out. It was great.”
Added Homer, who had 21 points of his own: “It’s always a huge crowd whenever we play Canyon. It’s always a big game.”
Big play after big play had the gym seemingly ready to burst — whether it was Stevens smothering a Jaguar’s shot, or Homer slithering past defenders and scoring on one of his poetic layups, or Canyon’s Gavin Hershberger, one of the best players in Colorado, putting down eight points in the blink of an eye to cut Vista’s lead to one point late in the second quarter.
But no other moment brought the house down quite like Stevens’ alley-oop dunk with 1 minute, 24 seconds to go in the game. The emphatic jam stretched the Golden Eagles’ lead to 57-47 and essentially squeezed the last bit of life out of the Jaguars.
“They were pretty hard to handle,” fourth-year Vista coach Brian Wood said of Homer and Stevens. “We ask a lot of them. They’re both incredible on both ends of the court.”
It was surely a satisfying win for the Golden Eagles (who also beat the Jaguars 52-51 on Dec. 3 in a nonleague tournament game). Last year, Canyon ended Vista’s season in the Class 5A state playoffs, winning 57-56 in a Sweet 16 thriller.
The 2023 state tournament is only a few weeks away, and there’s a very good chance these two teams haven’t seen the last of each other.
“I hope we see them again,” Stevens said. “They’re really good. They’re always super fun to play against.”
Playing fast and inducing early turnovers out of the Jaguars, Vista (16-2, 6-0 6A/5A Continental League) attempted twice as many shots as the visitors in the opening quarter. The Golden Eagles led 15-9 after the first 8 minutes, forcing Canyon (17-2, 5-1) to play from behind — though not from too far behind — the rest of the night.
Hershberger’s stop-and-pop 3-pointer with 1:02 remaining in the first half — moments after burying a separate trey and scoring on a twisting layup — brought Canyon to within a point at 24-23.
But every time the Jaguars started to get too close, the Golden Eagles went on a run of their own to reclaim the momentum and put some distance between themselves and Canyon.
Aidan Peck’s and-one play out of a timeout trimmed Vista’s lead to 36-32 with 3:38 left in the third quarter, but the Golden Eagles quickly went on a 7-0 run to take their biggest lead of the game.
Then, after seven consecutive Jaguars points made the score 43-39 early in the fourth quarter, the Golden Eagles outscored Canyon 8-2 over a 1:27 stretch to push their lead back to 10.
The Jaguars were never able to get closer than eight points the rest of the way.
“This has always been a team of runs,” 11th-year Canyon coach Kent Grams said of Vista. “They’re a heck of a team.
“I told our guys, `Being number one comes with a great responsibility.’ Tonight just wasn’t our night.”
Vista shot 47% (23-for-49) overall from the field. Cal Baskind scored 14 points, Brendan Diehl had three and Ian Strawbridge chipped in a pair to round out the scoring for the Golden Eagles.
Canyon connected on 37 percent (16-for-43) of its shots, though many of the Jaguars’ misses came late when they were in desperation mode. Hershberger paced Canyon with 18 points. The Jaguars’ other scorers were Peck (16), Mac Terry (eight), Hudson Ellwood (five), Kasen Lehman (three) and Reid Finch (two).