The league matters, and don't try to tell Chaparral girls basketball coach Tony Speights otherwise.
The Wolverines finished fourth in the Continental League, which few in their right mind would argue isn't the best in the state, earning a No. 3 seed in the Alice Barron Regional for the 5A tournament. Denver East, their opponent the March 5 Sweet 16 game, again went unbeaten in the Denver Prep League, winning its eight games by an average of almost 30 points en route to garnering a No. 2 seed.
Speights was convinced the difference in competition was the major difference in Chaparral's 55-48 victory at the Thunderdome at Manual High School, a win that sends the Wolverines back to the Denver Coliseum for their second quarterfinal appearance in three years. Chaparral (19-5) will face No. 1 seed Grandview on March 7.
“Here's the biggest thing: we thought that they hadn't played 32 minutes of basketball in a long time because of the league they play in,'' Speights said after Chaparral outscored East 39-30 in the second half after a sloppy opening 16 minutes by both teams. “They haven't lost a game in their league in 10 years, and in our league we're forced to play.
“We get beat by (Highlands) Ranch, they make us play 32 minutes. We take Regis to the end. At Rock Canyon we play 32 minutes. Even when we played Monarch last week (second round), we had to play 32 minutes to win.
“So one of our keys is, when we play 32 minutes, we win.''
The senior-laden Wolverines got a big boost from 6-0 junior Natalie Baker along with oft-injured Kendall Heitmeier, a 6-0 senior. Baker led Chaparral with 17 points, including six in the second quarter after East (20-5) had gone ahead 15-8. The Wolverines cut the deficit to 18-16 at, and it was nip-and-tuck until Heitmeier hit a 3-point basket that put her team ahead for good, 44-42, with 5:40 left. The Angels made it 49-48 on a 3-pointer by Michelle Cox with 1:40 left, but finished the game with six unanswered points.
After shooting 23 percent in the first half, Chaparral settled in and was 10-of-21 in the second half to East's 11-29 (6-12 in the third quarter.) The Wolverines made their first 14 free throws and finished 23-of-30 compared to 9-19 for the Angels.
Dayton DeMarais had 12 points for Chaparral, including 8-of-8 from the foul line, and Kyleigh Rees and Katrina Bacovcin each had 8.
“We got the butterflies out,'' said Baker. “We knew what we wanted to accomplish. We're all a bunch of seniors except me, so we know what we want to do and we had it in us. We know each other, we know what we're going to do. Our chemistry's definitely good.''
Heitmeier, came off the bench to score seven points. She's just happy to be playing again after missing most of the Continental League season with a foot stress fracture. Heitmeier also missed last season with a knee injury and suffered a broken nose as a sophomore.
“They played her a little soft in the first half,'' Speights said. “I told her that to get the drive she's going to have to shoot the 3. She got the 3 from the left side and it was just a huge, huge momentum deal.''
East's inside game - particularly 6-1 Francesca Kelly - kept the Angels, who had just one 3-pointer, in the game. Kelly, who was joined by another big body in 5-10 Khadijah Vigil, had a game-high 24 points but was 1-of-5 from the foul line with a miss on the front end of a one-and-one in the final 4:28.
“They had it going down under, so we had to stop that and stop Frannie,'' Baker said. “She's a great player.''
Speights turned to a 2-3 zone after Kelly scored six of East's eight unanswered points to start the game, and it was especially effective in the second quarter when the Angels were 1-for-12 shooting over the final seven minutes.
“I feel we just ran out of gas,'' said East coach Dwight Berry. “Our go-to player, she might have run out of gas. We had our opportunities. We were right there at the basket, and we've got to finish it.
“Kudos to Tony and Chaparral, they earned the win. They played a complete four quarters and we played 3 ¾. That's why they won the game.''
“Their kids play about three quarters a night, so it's how do we put East in a situation where they have to make decisions,'' Speights said. “That's what we did to them, and we made better decisions late because we've been in that situation before.''