Special to Colorado Community Media
With the final seconds dripping away in the Lutheran boys basketball team’s Final Four game March 9, the Lions found themselves in a very familiar spot.
Six days prior, in their Elite 8 game against Alamosa, the Lions trailed by four points with less than a minute to go. Thanks in part to Alamosa’s inability to convert at the free-throw line late, Lutheran stormed back and won the game in overtime.
Six days later, against Resurrection Christian with a berth in the Class 4A state championship game on the line, the Lions were down by six points with just over a minute left.
The difference this time? Resurrection was rock-solid at the free-throw line, which proved to be the difference in the second-seeded Cougars’ 64-53 win over No. 4 Lutheran at the Denver Coliseum.
The loss closed the book on the 2022-23 season for the Lions, who finished the year with an 18-9 record overall.
“I’m really proud of them,” Lutheran coach Bill Brandsma said of his team. “We prepared, we competed and we fought all the way to the very end, just like I knew we would. There are nights when you take a risk like we did in trying to extend the game and it just doesn’t work.”
A Braydon Jacob 3-pointer from the right wing trimmed the Cougars’ lead to 57-51 with 66 seconds remaining.
Lutheran sent four different Resurrection players to the line by way of fouling as the game wound down, but the Cougars were nearly perfect from the charity stripe when it mattered most, dropping in seven of their last eight attempts to hold off the Lions.
In fact, Resurrection was sharp from the free-throw line all night, connecting on 26 of their whopping 33 (79%) attempts.
“It’s what championship teams do — they step up and hit their free throws and win it,” Brandsma said. “They did what they needed to do to put themselves in a position to win [the state title on March 11].”
Resurrection never trailed and led by as many as 15 points.
Lutheran actually outscored Resurrection by a point in the second half, but a slow start for the Lions — 16 points on 32% (6-for-19) shooting in the first two quarters — made it difficult for them to close the gap.
“We struggled offensively in the first half,” said senior Brendan Kooienga, who finished with 13 points for the Lions. “Once we started to get it going, we scored more but were down a little too much and couldn’t crawl back.”
It wasn’t that the Lions were missing wide-open shots, though. It was more so that Resurrection (23-4) played a physical style of basketball and applied pressure all night, making it challenging for the Lions to shake free and get off clean looks.
“What makes them the most special, I think, is their physicality on both ends of the court,” Brandsma said of the Cougars. “I told my team at halftime, ‘We’re not setting screens harder than they’re getting through the screens,’ and so we weren’t creating any separation.”
The Lions did a good job of containing 6-foot-11 center Jacob Barker, who attempted just two shots from the field in a nine-point effort. Ty Yoder (17 points) led the way for Resurrection, followed by Marcus Phillips (11) and Cade Crutcher (10).
Jacob scored a team-high 17 points for Lutheran, shooting 60% (3-for-5) from both two-point range and from beyond the arc. Kade Speckman scored nine points and Tucker Monroe had eight. Also getting into the scoring column for the Lions were Hunter Caldwell and MJ Rottinghaus, who had three points apiece.
“I don’t want them to hang their heads,” Brandsma said of his players. “A lot of kids don’t get this far. It’s not the result we wanted, obviously, but I still want them to remember it, and I think they will. I want them to remember what they surrendered to get here. Sometimes it was surrendering to be the scout-team guy in practice. Sometimes it was surrendering to not get the touch when they felt they could have. It took all 13 guys to get here.
“I’m humbled to lead them, and I’m proud to represent Lutheran.”