Vail Christian wins league opener
Saints get revenge on Meeker Cowboys in Friday home matchup
Last season, Meeker handed Vail Christian its only league loss, a 51-48 defeat in Edwards in late February. On Friday night, the Saints got some revenge, outclassing the traditionally tough and well-coached Cowboy squad en route to a 51-36 victory in front of its home crowd.
“It was nice to get off to a good shooting start,” head coach Sheldon Kuhns said about the polished all-around performance.
The rivals looked to be headed towards another close game early on. Trailing 6-5 after a pretty Liam Deming jumper, senior forward Jesse Gonzales jumped a cross-court pass and took it coast to coast, converting the breakaway steal into an and-one lay-up. After sinking the free throw, the old-school, 3-point play turned the tide in the Saint’s favor.
“Our full court intensity and that play specifically was kind of a turning point,” head coach Sheldon Kuhns said about the aggressive anticipatory steal. “I think just in general our full court tempo really gave them trouble last night. ”
A few minutes later, Quinn Downey found Theo Moritz for a spot-up 3-pointer from the right wing to put the Saints up 16-6. The Saints have a penchant for freely launching the long ball, but on Friday night, its first-half defense was stingy, too. Swinging the ball around the perimeter wasn’t going to do much good for Meeker, but the Saints weren’t giving an inch inside.
The one time the Cowboys did try to feed the post in the first half, Taylor Shull was there to knock it away. His poke-check as the first quarter buzzer sounded ensured the Saints closing off the period on an 11-0 run.
“I thought our defense played exceptionally well,” Kuhns said.
“They’re a really well coached team. They know us well, and we know them well,” he said, noting that he and Meeker coach Klark Kindler are the two longest tenured coaches in the league. “We had each other scouted pretty well — we knew what they were trying to accomplish on offense and our guys really executed our defensive game plan well.”
Late in the second quarter, the Saints went on another 8-0 run to go up 27-11 before closing out the half ahead 31-15. If the first half was about the Saints establishing their dominance, the second began with them showing compassion, an element not emphasized whatsoever in the Saint’s half-time locker room chat.
“We talked about it at halftime — ‘Guys it’s 0-0 again. Let’s come out and put things away,’” he said. “We kind of floundered on offense in that third quarter, especially the first few minutes. That could be a little bit of human nature that kicks in.”
The slow start to the third quarter — the Saints scored two points in the opening 4:48 and would end with a mere seven in the quarter altogether — was inconsequential by the final buzzer. Content with giving some life to the Cowboys in that period, the Saints put things away in the fourth.
The culminating moment that encapsulated the unselfish, disciplined, fundamental style of play demonstrated by the home team throughout the evening came with three minutes to go. Senior center Connor Downey, at 6 foot, 3 inches, executed a perfect pick and roll, received contact and converted a soft left-handed layup to put the Saints up 45-28.
Afterwards, Jeffrey Hall closed things up with four straight free throws. The diminutive guard with textbook shooting form played smart and set the tone in regards to establishing the full-court pressure Kuhns’s squads have become known for.
“He’s got a pure stroke, and he works on his game as much as anybody on our team, both on the court and in the weight room,” Kuhns said. “He plays with a big heart and steps up to the challenge. He’s a smart player — he sees the court really well. Was really pleased with his performance last night.”
The next game for the Saints is against Lake County Jan. 6 in Edwards.