Trailing by 21 points on the road against a higher seed, victimized by 21 points by Rangeview's Jeremiah Paige and shooting just 25 percent from the floor and 6-of-17 from the foul line, you'd think Highlands Ranch would have been demoralized at halftime of its second-round 5A boys basketball playoff game.
“I told them at halftime they were going to make the biggest comeback in Highlands Ranch history,'' coach Bob Caton said.
He was almost prophetic. Buoyed by a 2-3 trapping zone defense and improved shooting, the Falcons staged a big-time rally. They twice pulled within one point in the fourth quarter and trailed by two points with 28.7 seconds left, but couldn't quite finish the job.
Third-seeded Rangeview, behind 40 points from Paige and mostly clutch free throw shooting down the stretch, hung on for a 70-64 victory that ended No. 6 seed Highland Ranch's season earlier than any of the previous three.
“We were just a few points shy of it,'' Caton said. “A turnover here, a play here, a play there and it's done. We had our chances, but that's just basketball.''
Caton had to do a bit of a makeover for the 2013 season after losing the likes of 6-foot-9 Austin Haldorson, Brett Brady and Steve Donatell, who led the Falcons to two straight semifinal appearances. The Falcons also reached the quarterfinals in 2010.
Highlands Ranch finished with a 17-8 record, including 8-3 for fourth place in the Continental League, and carried a five-game winning streak into the March 2 game after disposing of Mullen 64-39 in the first round.
Considering the players the Falcons had to replace from 2012, was Caton satisfied with the results?
“Well, yes and no,'' he said. “Our goal every time is to get as far as we possibly can no matter who we lose or don't lose. We had three seniors and they wanted to get in the final four again. That's our goal every year.''
If it's any consolation, three of the players who helped rally the Falcons against Rangeview (20-4) are due back next season. Junior Evan Motlong rebounded from a horrible-shooting first half to score 15 of his team-high 20 points in the second half, including a driving bank shot that made it 64-62 at the 28.7 mark. Nick Shumpert, a sophomore backup guard, had 12 of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, including a 3-pointer that made it 61-60 with less than a minute left. Zach Braxton, a 6-8 junior, added 13 points and 11 rebounds.
But the Falcons couldn't convert on crucial field goal attempts down the stretch.
Credit Caton's move to a zone defense for stemming Paige and Rangeview's offense. The Raiders shot just under 50 percent from the floor in building a 38-17 halftime lead (it would have been bigger save for 3-of-11 from the foul line). The Raiders made just three field goals (3-of-13) in the second half, all by Paige, but were 26-of-34 from the foul line.
“We dug a hole, and to get out of the hole we had to up the tempo a little bit,'' Caton said. “And, really, just make a few shots that we missed in the first half, play a little better defense and go to the boards a little better. We tried to make them make mistakes, which they did a few.''
“Their traps really hurt us,'' said Rangeview coach Shawn Palmer. “We talked at halftime about being patient but not passive, and I think we got a little passivity with our guys. We're at our best when we're attacking. They've got some shot-blockers where we got to the rim and they just turned us away. We've got to just keep coming at them. We did, and we hit enough free throws to pull it out, but not as much as we need to if we're going to continue to win.''
Paige, a 6-3 left-handed junior, was 12-of-21 from the floor (3-5 on treys) and 13-16 from the foul line to top his previous season high of 35 against Adams City.
“That's the best he's played in a long time. We needed him to play well and he stepped up on the big stage,'' Palmer said of Paige, who brought a 19.3 scoring average into the game.
Motlong, who had 77 3-pointers in the first 24 games, was 3-of-5 beyond the arc in the second half (4-13 for the game). The Falcons held a 128-90 season's advantage over Rangeview in made 3-pointers, but were 5-of-25 (including 1-9 for Shumpert) compared to the Raiders' 5-of-9.
Palmer thought before the game and even at halftime his Raiders would be in for a battle, especially given the difference in quality between the teams' league schedules. Rangeview tied Aurora Central for the East Metro title (Central won the head-to-head tiebreaker) and Highlands Ranch went 8-3 for fourth in the Continental. Only three East Metro teams finished above .500 for the season; the Continental produced two top seeds and a No. 3 for the tournament.
“We knew that Highlands Ranch is as talented of a 6 seed as you're going to see,'' Palmer said.
That held true in the second half, but it was too little, too late.
“We showed a lot of heart, a whole lot of heart,'' Caton said.