Returning all but two regulars from last year’s Elite Eight team in the 5A boys basketball playoffs, Cherry Creek coach Mike Brookhart admitted that prior to the 2013 season he would have been satisfied with a berth in the Sweet 16.
But after a 52-44 upset of No. 3 seed Aurora Central in the second round March 2, Brookhart and the Bruins are in a greedy mood.
The win leaves Cherry Creek (14-11) and Arapahoe as the only No. 6 seeds advancing to the Sweet 16. On March 6, the Bruins will face a familiar foe when they play at Cherokee Trail. The second-seeded Cougars beat Creek twice en route to capturing the Centennial League title, but Brookhart’s club has reason to believe the scales could be tipped.
“We were up something like 15 with about six minutes left,’’ Sam Stoveall, Creek’s leading scorer, recalled of the Feb. 13 game with Cherokee Trail. “They pressed us and we turned it over three or four times in a row and they hit three 3’s in a row, and we just gave it to them. So we know we can play with them.’’
The Cougars, who won the first game by 14 points, outscored Creek 28-12 in the fourth quarter the second time.
Giving Creek further hope is the fact Cherokee Trail played without its top two scorers in its second-round win, 69-66 over Lakewood. Leading scorer Roderick Bernstine, the University of Denver signee, is nursing a sore knee, and Jay Nelson had academic issues. Cougars coach Morgan Gregory, who attended the Creek-Central game, said there’s a chance Bernstine will play Wednesday but wasn’t sure about Nelson.
“If we can get one more that’d be two straight 8’s, and that’d be fun for the kids,’’ said Brookhart, who returned Stoveall and sophomore Will Bower from the 2012 team that lost by one point to Rangeview in the quarterfinals.
Another defensive effort like the one against Aurora Central (17-7 and winners of the East Metro League) might do the trick for Creek. The Bruins held the Trojans to 25 points below their average and frustrated 6-2 senior Carlton Hurst, a Colorado State signee and a strong candidate for state player-of-the-year honors. Hurst, who averages 24.5 points, netted 21 but was scoreless until late in the first half and finished 6-of-17 shooting for the game.
A 3-pointer by Taylor Shepard gave the Bruins their first lead, 7-6, and they never squandered it, although Central’s press made it interesting in the fourth quarter.
“We took ‘em out of their game, didn’t we,’’ Brookhart exclaimed. “We really pride ourselves on defense, and to hold a team that averages that kind of points … that’s the kind of game we need to play to win. It’s a real tribute to our kids how we controlled the ball.’’
Brookhart assigned the trio of Bower, Stoveall and Brent Hernandez to take turns guarding Hurst, the latter two facing Hurst more than planned because of Bower’s foul problems (two in the first two minutes of the second quarter, a fourth with 7:24 left in the game).
“We were trying to force him right and get strong-side help,’’ Stoveall said of the left-handed Hurst. “We wanted anybody to shoot it but him. It was really a team effort because you had to be on help side every time he had the ball and make sure he wasn’t getting any easy baskets. And that’s what we did, especially in the first half.’’
The Bruins held Central to 31 percent shooting from the floor, including 2-of-18 on 3-pointers to offset the Trojans’ 34-25 advantage on the boards. Creek scored the first nine points of the second quarter for a 22-8 lead as Central went 0-for-5 with four turnovers.
Stoveall, who matched Hurst’s 21 points, scored Creek’s first eight points of the third quarter as the Bruins extended a 26-17 halftime lead to 15 points and led by 14 headed into the fourth.
But Central’s press resulted in Creek going 5:13 without scoring, and the Bruins’ lone field goal of the quarter came after Griffin Parr had the ball poked away but recovered it in the lane for a 45-39 lead with just over two minutes remaining.
Central got within 45-42 by making three of four free throws sandwiched by a Creek turnover, but the Bruins closed out the game going 7-of-8 from the foul line before Hurst ended his career with a layup stuff.
“When we get pressed in the fourth quarter we just don’t play as freely,’’ Brookhart said. “I don’t know why, but we don’t. We’re a little bit delicate, fragile.’’
“There were like three games where if we just handled the pressure at the end of the game, we’d have won,’’ Stoveall said. “We’ve worked a lot on that and we banked on that getting us far.’’
Stoveall has been in a bit of a shooting slump and despite his 21 points, he continued to struggle from long range. The 6-1 senior was 0-for-5 on 3-pointers, making him 0-13 in the playoffs. He only had two games in the regular season without a trey and had 49 on the year.
“It wasn’t great, but I’m not going to not shoot it, because the whole season I’ve been shooting the ball,’’ Stoveall said. “I’m not too worried, I’ll start hitting them. And they want me to shoot it.’’
Graham Pingree, Creek’s 6-7 center, had 11 points and 8 rebounds. The Bruins shot 38 percent from the floor (2-12 on 3’s) and were 14-19 from the foul line.