LOVELAND — Vail Christian basketball overcame a 17-4 deficit against Primero in regional play last week, but it couldn’t mount the comeback magic again on Thursday against Hi-Plains during the first round of the state tournament at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland.
The No. 2-seeded Patriots, behind senior Avery Marzolf’s game-high 24 points, jumped out to a 23-7 first-quarter lead and never looked back for a 69-54 win over the No. 7 Saints. Vail Christian, however, is not done here. It faces Norwood today in the consolation bracket at 10:15 a.m.
“We still have a chance to play two more games to have a chance to win our last game,” Saints coach Sheldon Kuhns said. “So, we’ve got to keep moving forward. It’s disappointing to go to the wrong side of the bracket. It is. But in the big picture, we felt good last year winning the third-place game. We would feel pretty good winning the fifth-place game.”
Vail Christian had watched game tape of the Patriots in preparation for the tournament. The Saints knew Marzolf was going to be a handful, and anticipated a high 2-3 zone from the Patriots.
However, simulating the two in practice and facing them in person are different things. The Patriots’ zone met the Saints at halfcourt and wreaked havoc early. That turned into more possessions for Hi-Plains and buckets, primarily for Marzolf, who had 13 points in just the first quarter.
“Avery’s big in the middle for us,” Hi-Plains coach Dave Sheffield said. “He’s a guy we want to isolate early and run our stuff through. He does a good job kicking it out and getting everyone going. It’s big and it’s part of our general game plan.”
Marzolf had 11 of Hi-Plains’ first 14 points, and on the other end of the court, Vail Christian couldn’t handle the high zone, turning the ball over regularly.
“We have seen a pressure defense, but not a high pressure defense like that,” Kuhns said. “It took us a little while to get used to that. And, at that point, we dug ourselves into too deep of a hole.”
Complicating matters was the worst-kept secret in Vail Christian basketball history — Ethan Ellsworth was gamely playing on a bum ankle, which he injured against Primero last week, and understandably couldn’t match up well against Marzolf.
Getting in the flow
Vail Christian rallied in the second quarter. Kuhns switched senior Branden Currey from the high to low post and the Saints broke the zone by swinging the ball down to No. 15.
Currey had eight of his 14 points in the second. Coupled with some good defensive stops — Currey was now on Marzolf — the Saints got it to 29-20 with three minutes left in the half. Alex Davis and Ellsworth also registered buckets underneath.
“As a team, we started attacking the holes, pushing the ball around and got it into the low post,” Currey said.
One of the effects of Hi-Plains’ high 2-3 zone was that it also managed to take Parker Poage’s lethal 3-point game out of the picture. The Patriots’ Justin Miltenberger was Poage’s shadow. Poage did finish with 16 points, leading the Saints, but most of that came in the second half.
“He’s 6-3 and long,” Kuhns said of Miltenberger. “And Parker couldn’t shoot over him like he normally does. They had a good game plan. I thought we had a good game plan. It’s a good basketball team. I was proud of our guys. I think we played hard. We did a lot of good things.”
The Patriots shifted their zone from up high to a more traditional compact 2-3 focusing on Currey.
Poage said thank you very much and scored the first five points of the third quarter, getting the Saints within 34-27, but that was as close as Vail Christian would get.
“We were playing our game, and they just kept answering us every time,” Poage said. “We made a few bad passes, but I couldn’t be prouder of our guys with how we stayed composed.”
Though the game was clearly getting away from Vail Christian, both Davis and Poage took charges, rare whistles in a very physical game. With Hi-Plains leading, 48-33, after three quarters, Vail Christian had to press defensively and the Patriots obliged by breaking the defense and racing up court for easy lay-ins.
Vail Christian (16-7) is familiar with Norwood. The Saints fell to the Mavericks, 43-35, back during the district final two weeks ago in Olathe.
“We just have to play Vail Christian basketball, whether it’s Cheyenne Wells or Norwood,” Kuhns said before Cheyenne Wells and Norwood had played. “It doesn’t really matter.”
“We still have a chance to play two more games to have a chance to win our last game. So, we’ve got to keep moving forward.”
Vail Christian coach