Plateau Valley wins region championship game over Vail Christian
Cowboys steal game late to claim 50-42 victory in Sheldon Kuhns' final game as Saints head coach
Vail Christian knew if it was going to get revenge for the 42-40 loss against Plateau Valley in last weekend’s 2A District 5 championship, it was going to have to steal one on the road. For the first 28 minutes of Saturday’s regional title against the Cowboys, the league-champion Saints were poised to do just that.
It was the other four minutes that would make the difference.
After trailing for nearly the entire game, a 15-2 fourth-quarter run catapulted the Cowboys to a 50-42 victory, ending the Saints magnificent season — the last with head coach Sheldon Kuhns at the helm — one game short of the state tournament.
“Sometimes the team that wins is the one that was hot when the time ran out,” Kuhns said. “They had a flurry at the end and time ran out on us. They made the plays in the last couple of minutes that they needed to make to win the game, so credit to them.”
Compared to the whistle-happy, turnover-infested slog on Feb. 25, Saturday’s flow-friendly game saw both teams get out of the gate quickly. Plateau Valley’s Colter Ralston opened with a bang, nailing a 3-pointer on the hosts’ first possession. The Cowboys had an early 5-2 lead, but the Saints remained patient on offense, grounded on defense and strong with the ball on both ends. They responded with a 6-0 run to build a lead that would go unchallenged until midway through the fourth quarter.
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The Cowboys tried to establish an inside presence, but their one-dimensional approach only proved fruitful on put-back second-chances. On the other end, Andre Skweir proved to be a formidable low-post option for the visitors.
“The way they decided to defend us today, he was the one that ended up with the mismatch and we were able to take advantage of that,” Kuhns said of Skweir. The senior scored six first-quarter points, including a nice up-and-under, a fast-break lay-up, and a fundamental post up where he backed his man down to point-blank range before kissing the rock off the glass.
“He was really disciplined with his moves, had really great footwork and he got out on transition. He’s been our under-the-radar guy all year — he’s been phenomenal.” At the end of one, it was 16-14 Saints.
In the second quarter, the glaring juxtaposition of both team’s offensive firepower was on full display. Quinn Downey, who was quiet in the first, came off a screen on the opening possession and drilled a catch-and-shoot top-of-the-key 3-pointer to set the tone and move the gap to five. Theo Moritz and Will Neumann slashed and created their own looks as well.
It was a stark contrast to the Cowboys’ guards, who were hesitant on the perimeter and needed ample time for their slow-release set shots. The Saints didn’t bite for any half-hazard pump fakes, however, and all that kept the home team relevant were periodic loose-ball baskets and the occasional open three from the game’s surprise off the bench, Ralston, who finished the half with nine of his 15 points.
Meanwhile, Kuhns’ club was running on all cylinders. Neumann’s fast-break wrap-around dish to a charging Jack Pryor revealed the core starters’ trust and communication and put the team up 24-18 with 2:53 remaining. Then, a long, meandering and ultimately shot-less Cowboys offensive possession highlighted Vail Christian’s stingy defense. On the ensuing possession, Downey dribbled off a screen and drilled a 23-foot pull-up statement to make it 27-18.
Plateau Valley did escape with Ralston’s desperation, buzzer-beating 3-pointer off the backboard, but even with a halftime score of 29-23, it seemed obvious who the better team was.
“I thought we had a chance to really put them behind the eight-ball in the second quarter,” Kuhns said.
“We missed a few possessions and then they banked in the three and all of a sudden we were up only six instead of what could have been double digits and I think that maybe came back to haunt us a little bit.”
Things grew chippy to start the second as the Cowboys tried to claw back. Meanwhile, Downey couldn’t buy a bucket for the Saints or seem to get to the charity stripe.
“He was just battling physically to get closer to the hoop and they just didn’t go,” the coach said of Downey, whom he praised afterward for his leadership all-season, even more than being the team’s leading scorer.
As the star’s floaters and layups — apparently cursed at the rim — continued to lip out, the rowdy student section got louder. When Plateau Valley captain Ethan Morse tied things up 31-31 with a huge triple, it seemed like everyone in attendance knew they’d better buckle in for some real playoff basketball after all.
“That’s the shot that really gave them some life,” Kuhns commented.
Downey answered, finally converting on and old-fashioned 3-point play by absorbing contact and softly laying a left-hander off the glass. But Morse blew past the Saints’ guard on the next possession and even with Moritz closing the quarter with a turnaround fadeaway, the energy had shifted in favor of the Cowboys.
In the fourth, the game continued to devolve from its original run-and-gun feel as both teams struggled to put the ball in the hoop. Plateau Valley finally claimed it’s first lead, 39-37, two minutes in.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen the lid go on the basket like it did in the second half in a while,” Kuhns commented. “We got a lot of shots we wanted in the second half, but they just wouldn’t go.”
The dagger came when Ralston and Morse made back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Cowboys a commanding 45-39 lead with 1:40 to go, a sudden shift that took the wind out of the Saints’ sail for good. Going back to the Saints’ 37-33 lead after a Jack Pryor free throw to open the fourth, it was a 15-2 run by the Cowboys.
“They got very few open shots, but when they got them they made them,” Kuhns said in reference to Ralston and Morse’s big plays.
“You kind of take a step back and say, ‘we had control of that game and we ‘could of, should of’ got that ‘w,’ but man did our guys battle.'”
After ending his 23rd and final season with a 17-4 record, Kuhns said the vibe in the locker room was not one of sheer disappointment.
“Graduating eight seniors off last year’s team, I don’t think we knew exactly what we had, and we quickly developed into a very good basketball team,” he said before listing off how each of his players developed through the year.
“This team stepped up. Nobody was disappointed with this season.”
“It’s been an amazing 23 years,” he continued.
“We put ourselves in position year-in and year-out, and to do that in a ski-town, I think it’s pretty special. Our guys do everything they can for this school and this program, and I think that’s awesome. And it goes beyond basketball, too.”