BROOMFIELD - Vail Christian boys basketball, meet the state of Colorado. Centennial State, meet the Saints.
No. 6 Vail Christian made its debut in the 1A state tournament at the 1stBank Center in Broomfield a smashing success, pulling the upset of No. 3 Fleming, 67-58, Thursday afternoon. The Saints are in the Final Four today (Friday) at 4 p.m. here against No. 2 McClave.
"It's incredible," center Kevin Boselli said. "First, we pushed through districts, then regionals and now we're in the Final Four. I don't think anybody except for Vail Christian fans and our team thought we could win, but we stepped it up."
"They believe. It's on our gym wall," said Vail Christian head coach Sheldon Kuhns. "They believe, and they don't think they're done yet."
The word is both
The Saints (19-4) came in hoping to jump-start their offense, which was amusing to those who have followed this team for the last five years. The biggest obstacle to success in the regular season and the playoffs for run-and-gun Vail Christian has usually been defense.
The Saints seem to have the defense thing finally down, to the tune of 42 points per game. But after 42 points on offense in a win over Norwood in districts and just 44 last weekend at regionals, it was time to get running again.
"We came into this week and the word was 'both' - offense and defense," Kuhns said. "Keep playing D and offense. We had to score a few more points, so we opened it up a little bit and we tired them out. They were a little bit gassed at the end. We missed some shots early, but we kept going."
Whether it was breaking out the running game again or nerves on the state stage, the first half wasn't pretty. Vail Christian turned the ball over and missed some good looks on offense.
The Saints trailed for the entire first half and were down 32-26 at the half. Some good signs were emerging, however. Sophomore Luke Berger came off the bench and had six points in the second quarter.
"I think, maybe, some guys were nervous coming in as a sixth seed and playing a third," Berger said. "But after the first quarter going into the second, we got our groove back on offense."
Austin Ellsworth was also in the groove. He had a 3 with 4:34 left in the half, which answered Fleming's Tanner Serrato's shot from downtown. The Vail Christian senior had a jumper a minute later and was being his general pest-like self, taking fouls from the Wildcats.
All things considered, the Saints were in good shape only being down by six at the break.
"We were in the position we wanted," Saints guard Nigel Johnsen said. "It would have been better to have been up. As long as it was close, we could take care of it."
"We felt like we had played our game in the first half, but we didn't finish," Kuhns said. "We gave up a few too many points, but a three-possession game is right where we wanted to be."
Johnsen and Kuhns proved to be right as the Saints, erupted for an 18-7 third quarter. Zach Linder dropped a 16-footer from just above the free-throw line to start the half. With 6:23 left in the third, Robby Bowles shot from beyond the arc for the Saints' first lead of the game at 33-32.
Ellsworth zipped through the lane for a layup, followed by a slick steal from Johnsen, who dished it to Gunnar Wilson for two and a 37-34 lead. Fleming called a timeout to stop the flow, but the Saints kept coming.
At the 3:37 mark, Boselli went hard to the hoop, off a Linder pass. Boselli then blocked a shot that Wilson converted into an easy bucket.
Boselli's recent offensive slump was a concern for the Saints, but he was back on his game after a talk with Saints assistant coach Doug Bruce.
"Mr. Bruce came up to me and told me to be aggressive and try my hardest to attack the basket and get to the free-throw line," Boselli said. "That's what I tried to do and it finally paid off."
Fleming didn't go quietly, however. Tyler Vanderbark was unconscious in the fourth quarter, dropping two 3s as part of his game-high 18 points.
Bowles knocked down another 3 with 4:03 to go. Bowles to Boselli with 2:56 left pushed the lead to 54-46.
And then it was a parade to the line. The Saints were 14-for-20 in the final 2:48.
"Longest two minutes ever," said Bowles, who was 4-for-4.
"It was pretty nerve-wracking, but Austin is really clutch in practice," Berger said. "I knew we were going to make a lot."
Ellsworth was 5-for-6 in the fourth.
Vail Christian's scoring was the definition of balanced. Bowles had 14, while Boselli, Ellsworth and Wilson all had 13.
The Saints went to lunch after their win and returned to watch the McClave-Holly game.