Alex K.W. Schultz
Special to Colorado Community Media
The Mountain Vista boys basketball program’s dream of playing in a state championship game for the first time in school history will have to wait at least another year.
With a senior-laden and talent-rich roster, the Golden Eagles thought this very well may have been the year when the stars would align and they would finally, after knocking on the door several times in seasons past, gain entry into Colorado high school basketball’s biggest party.
But Vista, the No. 1 seed in the Class 6A tournament, ran into a deep, hot-shooting and ball-hawking Denver East team March 10 inside an electric Denver Coliseum, where an estimated 3,500 fans were on hand to take in the two teams’ Final Four game.
Five Angels scored in double figures and fourth-seeded East outrebounded the 6A/5A Continental League champions by a dozen to win 86-67, ending what was a memorable season for the Golden Eagles.
(East went on to rout Fossil Ridge 82-61 the following day for the state title. Now a 12-time state champion, East is tied with Manual for the most state titles in Colorado).
“I’m super proud of them,” said Vista coach Brian Wood, playing in his first Final Four as a head coach. “I’d love to get [a state championship] at some point. I thought we had a pretty good chance this year. It’s just the way it goes sometimes, but I’m very proud to have gotten to coach these guys.
“This is an extra special group, 10 seniors. They really love each other. I told them to hold their heads high. They have nothing to be but proud. This is a great group of guys.”
Vista was good. Five Golden Eagles also had double-digit scoring nights: Caden Stevens (16 points), Cal Baskind and Brendan Diel (12 apiece), and Zach Bowen and Radek Homer (11 each).
East was just better. Austin Mohr, whom Wood described as “one of the 10 best” players in Colorado, recorded a double-double (15 points, 12 rebounds). Gil Gonzalez scored a game-high 20 points on 73% shooting (8-for-11). D’Aundre Samuels, lauded by Wood as “probably the best player in the state,” had 16 points and looked unstoppable at times. And don’t forget about Jack Greenwood and Sam Scott, who scored 12 and 11 points, respectively.
Moral of the story: From top to bottom, the players on East’s roster could do damage on the scoreboard. When Samuels got in foul trouble midway through the third quarter, longtime East coach Rudy Carey simply plugged in another player and the scoring continued.
In all, East attempted 22 more shots than the Golden Eagles, who were making their fourth Final Four appearance in program history.
“Their shot-making ability is just incredible,” Stevens said. “It’s really hard to defend a team when all their players, one through eight, can make shots. It’s tough. That’s what makes them so good.”
What also made the Angels so good was their desire for the ball. East outrebounded Vista 41-29, which included a 20-11 advantage in offensive boards. Those offensive retrievals led to 20 second-chance points for the Angels.
“What surprised me the most was how badly they hurt us on the offensive glass,” Wood said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Things got a little interesting midway through the fourth quarter when Vista scored seven consecutive points — a Stevens two-pointer from the low post, a Bowen pull-up jumper and a Baskind corner three — over a span of 55 seconds to narrow East’s lead to seven.
But the Angels outscored the Golden Eagles 23-11 the rest of the way to prevent any kind of late-game drama.
After Vista (24-3) scored the game’s first five points, East (25-2) rode an 18-2 run — the longest run by either team — to an 18-14 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The two teams essentially played to a draw in the second period.
A driving shot by Homer early on in the third quarter, after he ripped down a rebound on the other end, gave the Golden Eagles what proved to be their last lead (39-38) of the night — and their season.
“We just struggled to get shots (to fall) on offense (in the second half),” said Stevens, whose Golden Eagles shot 38% in the third and fourth quarters compared to the Angels’ 55% mark. Worse yet, East was 75% (6-for-8) from three-point range in the second half compared to Vista’s 20% (2-for-10) clip. “The first time we played them (an 81-72 East win on Jan. 17), whenever we got shots on offense, we made most of them.”
Stevens will now turn his attention to the college game — MSU Denver has already offered him a scholarship and he’s receiving interest from several other Division I and II schools as well — but said he’ll never forget the season recorded in 2022-23 by a group of teenagers at the school off East Wildcat Reserve Parkway in Highlands Ranch.
And, of course, he’ll never forget his teammates, especially his fellow seniors: Bowen, Diehl, Homer, Cade Artzer, Bryan Cozad, Luke Fenn, Jake Nelson, Dominic Perkins and Ian Strawbridge.
“I love all of them,” Stevens said. “This year was so fun. That was the best season I’ve ever had in my life, just because of them — great teammates, a great coach [Wood] right here. It was a great season.”