Herrera’s clutch free throws leads Titans over Rams in district final
Clinging to a narrow 3-point lead with just over 30 seconds left in Saturday’s 3A district tournament championship game at Grand Junction Central High School, Coal Ridge senior point guard Brandon Herrera calmly walked to the free throw line twice and sank all four free throw attempts, leading the Titans to a hard-fought 53-51 win over the Roaring Fork Rams, giving the Titans their second straight season sweep of the regular season and district tournament titles in the 3A Western Slope League.
“It’s a lot of pressure going to the line with all eyes on you in that spot, but it comes down to muscle memory,” Herrera said following the win. “We shoot a ton of free throws in practice and [Coach] Harvey does a great job of making us do that in practice. So it comes down to muscle memory, which allowed me to sink them.”
Prior to Herrera’s heroics, the Titans and Rams found themselves in a knock-down, drag-out fight for the title. In the previous matchup in Carbondale this season, the Titans held on late for a 68-64 game, but this one would be much slower, and much more physical with the championship on the line.
It didn’t start out that way though.
In the most anticipated matchup of the day, the Rams came roaring out of the gate against the Titans to take an 18-14 lead after one quarter of play. Coal Ridge found itself in front 5-2 early thanks to a floater in the lane from Herrera and a 3-pointer from junior Jan Hernandez through contact. Unfortunately for the Titans, Hernandez couldn’t sink the ensuing free throw for the rare four-point play, which led to a jumper in the lane from Roaring Fork star senior Justin Thompson.
Following a runner from Coal Ridge junior Payton White, the Rams went on a quick 5-0 run as junior center Joe Salinas scored all five points in the run, giving the Rams a 9-7 lead.
Coal Ridge standout junior Kevin DiMarco quickly tied the game at 9-9, but a 3-point play from Thompson gave the Rams the lead right back. Impressively, White then hit a tough drive from the left block through contact, but his free throw following the made field goal came up short, keeping the Rams in front, 12-11.
Tied at 14-14 following a White 3-pointer, the Rams closed on a 4-0 run as junior guard Oscar Miranda and junior guard Ronald Clemente hit layups in transition to put the Rams in front following eight exciting minutes of action.
Things slowed down dramatically in the second quarter, at least for the Rams, who scored just four points in the eight-minute window, with all four points coming on free throws.
With Thompson and Salinas both in foul trouble and on the bench to close the half for Roaring Fork, the offense stagnated, allowing the Titans to get into a groove offensively.
“Justin and Joe were dealing with foul trouble, so when your two leading scorers are on the bench, we were certainly struggling there,” Roaring Fork Head Coach Larry Williams said.
Coal Ridge started the second quarter with a 3-pointer and a putback from DiMarco to push the Titan in front, 19-18. Roaring Fork senior Aidan Sloan then drew a foul and split his free throws, tying the game at 19-19, before Salinas split his own free throws, pushing the Rams in front at 20-19.
Trading free throws, Coal Ridge senior Connor Detlefsen then split a pair of free throws, tying the game at 20-20. Closing out a constant parade to the free throw line, Clemente sank both of his free throws to give the Rams a 22-20 lead, which would be the last lead they’d hold in the half as the offense broke down.
“We started sending an extra guy at Justin [Thompson],” Coal Ridge Head Coach Paul Harvey said. “We were playing him one-on-one, but he’s too good and was hurting us, so we changed things up. We were trying to disrupt his rhythmn and flow, and when we did that, we wanted to push the pace.”
The Titans did just that, closing the half on a 7-0 run as DiMarco hit a layup, White converted a twisting 3-point play in the paint and Herrera hit a runner to send the Titans into the half with a 27-22 lead.
In the second half the Rams battled back to take a 33-32 lead as Thompson and Salinas made their way back into the game Thompson hit a turnaround jumper in the paint before Salinas splashed home a 3-pointer on the Rams’ next possession to make it 29-27 Coal Ridge. Two free throws from Herrera pushed the Titans’ lead up to four points, but a layup from Salinas and two free throws from Thompson tied the game at 31-31 midway through the third quarter.
DiMarco then split a pair of free throws right before Thompson made a layup through contact to give the Rams a 33-32 lead late in the third quarter, which would end up being their last lead of the game.
Following Thompson’s layup, Salinas picked up his fourth foul, pushing the standout Rams forward to the bench, which opened up a key window for the Titans to attack. With Salinas on the bench, White hit two free throws and Herrera nailed his first 3-pointer of the game, giving the Titans a 37-33 lead. Three free throws from Thompson sandwiched a layup from DiMarco off of an assist from Hernandez as the Titans went into the fourth quarter with a 39-36 lead.
A quick 4-0 run to start the fourth quarter by the Titans off of buckets from senior Brody Morgan and Hernandez pushed the Titans’ lead to 43-36 before a Thompson jumper and two free throws pulled the Rams back to within five points.
Layups from DiMarco and Detlefsen gave the Titans their largest lead of the game at 49-40, but the Rams refused to go away with the clock winding down in the championship game.
Junior guard Oscar Miranda came up big, drilling back-to-back 3-pointers to make it a 49-46 game, but that’s when Herrera went to the line for the first of his two trips with under 30 seconds left in the game.
After Herrera’s first two free throws made it a 51-46 game, Salinas answered with a putback shot at the other end to make it 51-48, forcing the Rams to foul Herrera on the inbounds play. The senior calmly nailed his next two free throws to make it a 53-48 game before Salinas hit a 3-pointer from the right corner at the buzzer to close out the game with the final score of 53-51, Coal Ridge.
“This means the world because every team is unique and every team is new, with different guys and different pieces,” Harvey said following the win. “For these guys to enjoy that, and make these memories, they’re good kids. Roaring Fork has good kids too, so you wish you could share this feeling, because they work just as hard, but we’re fortunately that we came out on the right end today.”
In the win, DiMarco led the Titans with 16 points, while Herrera and White added 15 and 12 points for Coal Ridge. Jan Hernandez chipped in with 5 points.
For Roaring Fork, Thompson led the charge with 22 points, while Salinas and Miranda added 16 and 8 points, respectively.
The Titans will await the release of the 3A regional playoff bracket Sunday morning, in which the Titans will host a region for the second straight season. The Rams have a shot at hosting a regional tournament as well, despite dropping the game in the tournament finale.
MOFFAT COUNTY 43, GRAND VALLEY 34
The Grand Valley Cardinals’ girls basketball team can’t seem to figure out the Moffat County Bulldogs.
For the second straight yet, the Bulldogs topped the Cardinals in the 3A district tournament finale, holding off a late Grand Valley charge to claim their sixth straight tournament finale win.
Grand Valley held a slim 8-6 lead after one quarter of play as a runner from sophomore Jordyn Pittman, one free throw from sophomore Loghan Teter, and a 3-pointer and two free throws from junior Shaya Chenoweth helped Grand Valley take advantage of the Bulldogs shooting 2-for-15 from the floor to open the game.
But things quickly went sideways in the second quarter as the Bulldogs pulled out a halfcourt press and found their shooting strokes, outscoring the Cardinals 21-4 in the second quarter to race into the locker room at the half with a 27-12 lead, thanks to 13 second-quarter points from junior forward Kinlie Brennise.
Grand Valley’s only field goals in the second quarter came on a putback shot from RIley Sackett and a layup from Chenoweth. In the second quarter, Moffat County reeled off a 15-0 run to pull away from the Cardinals.
In the third quarter, the Cardinals were able to get going offensively as senior Danielle Call came off the bench to hit a 3-pointer to start the half, while Teter went to work on the block, hitting two tough shots down low. Unfortunately, the Cardinals’ defense couldn’t come up with consistent stops in the quarter as the Bulldogs went into the fourth quarter with a 38-22 lead.
That’s when the tide seemed to turn in favor of the Cardinals, as Grand Valley started the final quarter of play on a 10-0 run as Chenoweth knocked down a 3-pointer and a layup in transition off of an assist from Pittman, while Teter hit two jumpers and split a pair of free throws to pull the Cardinals to within six points late in the game, 38-32.
Moffat County senior Jana Camilletti went 3-for-4 down the stretch at the free throw line to help the Bulldogs close out the physical game.
In the loss, Chenoweth led the Cardinals with 15 points, while Teter added 12 points. Brennise led the Bulldogs with 21 points, while Camilletti added 7 points.
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After bowing out of the 3A state soccer playoffs in the quarterfinals and semifinals the past two seasons, the Roaring Fork Rams finally get their shot at a state title on Saturday.