Plateau Valley defeats Vail Christian 42-40 in thrilling district final
Saints 13-game winning streak comes to an end
Fans who made the trip to De Beque for Saturday’s 2A District 5 final between No. 1 Vail Christian (16-2) and No. 2 Plateau Valley (16-3) were treated to vintage prep playoff basketball.
“It was intense, suspenseful — it was epic. It was an amazing game,” said Saints head coach Sheldon Kuhns.
Two league foes battled it out in a low scoring defensive struggle, complete with a tight, free-throw filled finish and “the thrill of victory” for one — and “the agony of defeat” for the other. Unfortunately for Vail Christian supporters, the Saints ended up recipients of the latter, losing 42-40 to the Cowboys.
“It was a very evenly played game and we were evenly matched with them. We knew this would be a battle,” said Kuhns after his squad’s first loss in 14 games. It’s also worth mentioning that coming into Saturday, the Cowboys only loss since Jan. 6 was a 51-45 defeat at Vail Christian.
The largest lead for either team all night was six, when the Saints trailed 26-20 at halftime. An abundance of travel and foul calls on both sides impacted Vail Christian’s run-and-gun offense; in the end, Quinn Downey ended the night with 12 points, Will Neumann added 10 and Theo Moritz pitched in eight.
Support Local Journalism
“If the game could have had a little more flow, I think that could have played to our benefit,” Kuhns remarked.
The whistle-happy night forced the Saints into a 1-2-2 zone as starters Will Neumann and Andre Skweir got into foul trouble in the second. “It worked fantastically,” Kuhns said of the strategic shift. The Saints went to a bigger lineup late in the third, and both factors helped square things up, 29-29 with a quarter to go.
The game’s final 120-seconds lasted 20 minutes. Trailing 37-36 with 1:48 remaining, Downey was whistled for a questionable travel call driving to the basket. On the ensuing possession, Plateau Valley’s Ethan Morse launched a 3-pointer that missed badly. It barely caught the iron and fell into a Cowboy under the hoop, but Jack Pryor and Theo Moritz quickly trapped the player and stole the ball back for the Saints.
Vail Christian then looked to Pryor underneath, but the the low pass bounced off his feet and out with 30 seconds to go. Vail Christian put on a full-court press to get the ball back, with Moritz committing the necessary foul to put Morse at the line. The Plateau Valley captain drained both free throws.
Downey drove middle and lofted a floater off the backboard from 12-feet out, absorbing contact in the process and making it 39-38. After another quick foul off the inbounds, Parker Ralston went to the line for the Cowboys next. He also went 2-for-2.
“It was intense all the way through with clutch plays. They made a lot of clutch free throws down the stretch,” Kuhns said of the Cowboys, who went 6-for-8 from the line in the fourth quarter alone.
“If they miss a couple of those, that changes the outcome. We’re going to overtime or things like that.”
With 13 clicks remaining, Downey rushed to his team’s side of the centerline and Kuhns called a timeout to set up another half-court look. The drawn up play started with a high-post entry to Pryor. Skweir set a screen on the opposite wing for Downey, who streaked across and planted his right foot for a straight-away open look from deep.
A foul was called before the shot, however, on the Cowboy guarding Downey, who bulldozed over Skweir. Because Skweir hit his head on the fall, he needed to be cleared by an athletic trainer before re-entry, meaning Kuhns needed to find a sub to shoot the one-and-one.
The veteran coach looked to Diego Heredia, who hadn’t posted any minutes in the game to that point. The senior calmly sank two free throws to once again make it a one-point game with five seconds to go.
“I felt like he was our best option to make those free throws and he did,” said Kuhns. “That was clutch.” Kuhns opted to not have Heredia purposely miss in hopes of getting the ball back.
“Had there been less time, we would have, but I still felt like with six seconds left, we’d still get another look,” the coach explained.
Vail Christian was forced to foul immediately, and Ralston went to the line for another one-and-one. He missed the first but made the second to make it 41-40 with 3.6 on the clock. Downey got the inbounds and sprinted past half-court, where his heave from deep just clipped the front of the rim at the buzzer.
The eight district winners will join 24 at-large bids in advancing to the state tournament. The first two rounds of state are played as regionals. In winning the district championship, Plateau Valley earns hosting rights for next week’s regional tournament. Currently, the Saints are ranked eighth in 2A according to the CHSAA Selection & Seeding Index.
“Does it make us more hungry now? Potentially,” Kuhns said of the loss. “It should make us more hungry, not that we wouldn’t have been hungry, but it’s an extra motivating factor. It’s all still in front of us to make it to state, so let’s go win a regional tournament somewhere on the road.”