With leading scorer Sam Stoveall in the midst of a mini-shooting slump, Cherry Creek’s Will Bower assumed the role of point producer in Wednesday night’s Class 5A state tournament opener against Littleton. The sophomore responded with a season-high 16 points as the sixth-seeded Bruins rolled to a 61-38 home victory.
Bower will have to change gears quickly when Creek (13-11) moves on to Saturday’s second-round game at No. 3 seed Aurora Central (17-6). The 6-3 Bower will have the primary defensive responsibility against perhaps the state’s best player, 6-2 Carlton Hurst. The Colorado State-bound Hurst averages 24.5 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 4.2 steals. He’s “possibly the Colorado player of the year,’’ said Bruins coach Mike Brookhart.
Ideally for Bower and Creek, Stoveall will regain his offensive touch so Bower can focus on defending Hurst. Stoveall, who averages 16.3 points, had just eight points on 3-of-13 shooting against No. 11 seed Littleton (9-15). Fortunately for the Bruins, his lack of production wasn’t missed. Center Graham Pingreee had 13 points and Griffin Parr added eight, all in the first half. Not counting Stoveall, the Bruins shot 47 percent from the floor. They also were 20-of-31 from the foul line and their defense held the Lions to 30 percent shooting and three 3-pointers for a team that averaged 5 ½ per game.
Stoveall was 8-of-26 shooting in Creek’s two losses (Overland and Grandview) coming into the playoffs. “He’s been struggling a little bit, I would say; he was shooting better earlier in the season,’’ Bower said. “But I think he’ll bounce back. We’re going to need him to execute.’’
“He took really good shots tonight,’’ Brookhart said of Stoveall, who had scored double figures in the previous seven games. “He’s a good shooter, and they’ll fall. They’ll go on Saturday night. He’s not shooting well, but people are watching him and he always draws the best defender. So I’m real proud of him.’’
Bower averages 8.3 points and was tied with Pingree for the team lead in offensive rebounds (34). “I tried to be a lot more aggressive, and as a team we really focused on the offensive boards, which we’ve been struggling with in the last couple of games,’’ Bower said.
Creek never gave Littleton a chance, jumping out to a 10-0 lead in the first three minutes. The Bruins led 27-9 less than halfway through the second quarter and built leads of 20 points early in the third and 25 late in the fourth.
“It’s good that we all stepped up and played aggressively,’’ said Bower, whose previous high was 14 and had double figures in just one of the previous eight games. “It’s good to know that we don’t have to rely on (Stoveall).’’
Bower and Stoveall are the lone returnees from last year’s team, which won its first two playoff games before falling to Rangeview by one point in the Sweet 16. The 2013 Bruins’ record included a loss to No. 1 Denver East along with two apiece to Cherokee Trail, Eaglecrest and Grandview, the Centennial League’s top three teams.
“We kind of played with a chip on our shoulders today,’’ Bower said of dropping the final two regular-season games. “(The losses) might have been good for us in that it teaches us that we have to finish games, which I thought we did a pretty good job of tonight.’’
‘’I was concerned with our kids’ confidence,’’ Brookart said. “We tried to really stress the defensive effort and I think we played pretty good defense tonight.’’
Under first-year coach Dan Ellis, Littleton made its first playoff appearance since 2009 and won its most games since 2010 with a schedule that included Arapahoe, Columbine and Evergreen in addition to the demanding Continental League.
But the Lions were a team in transition throughout the season. They added 6-7 junior Tim Ladwig (9.2 average for 13 games) after the break and dropped point guard Gentry Girtin (9.0 average) from the team prior to the final regular-season game. Junior Austin Bieber, one of the top inside reserves, missed Wednesday’s game with an illness.
Senior guard Nicolas Giordano led the Lions on Wednesday with 17 points. Ladwig and senior Andreas Malmstrom had eight apiece.