The Lewis-Palmer boys basketball team is now the “two-time defending” Class 4A state champions. The Rangers joined that elite fraternity on March 16 with a 51-40 victory over Valor Christian at the University of Colorado’s Coors Events Center as an estimated 4,000 spectators looked on.
It was a hard-fought win in which the Rangers’ big two superstars – 6-foot-6 seniors Justin Smith and Jordan Scott – combined for 32 points and 19 rebounds.
“We knew we were going to battle through adversity the whole year and I couldn’t be more proud of our team and the way we stepped up tonight,” said Smith, who has signed with Division I Idaho State. “We got the job done.
“I couldn’t be more proud of Jordan. He played a heck of a game and I’m so proud of him.”
Smith and Scott each had impressive slam dunks. Smith’s occurred at 3:55 mark of the second quarter and capped a 9-0 Rangers run.
Scott’s came with 1:14 left on the clock in the fourth quarter to put the Rangers up 49-38 as the delirious “Ranger Rowdies” rooting section screamed at the top of their lungs.
“Our team motto this year was ‘One game at a time. Don’t take anybody for granted,’” Scott said. “It was always a dream to win two in a row, but we had to focus on the opponent in front of us. We learned from our losses and we came back stronger.”
Winning back-to-back state championships is never easy. It became a daunting task after the Rangers graduated 6-10 All-American center Josh Scott. All he did was lead the team to a 27-1 record (27 consecutive victories) in 2011-2012 while averaging 28.9 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
Scott – now a starting forward for the NCAA Tournament-bound University of Colorado – watched from the stands as the Rangers played Valor Christian. Also present was his Buffaloes coach Tad Boyle.
“We’re two different teams; both very good teams,” Jordan Scott said.
“We had to prove to the rest of the state that this team could win a state championship.”
Many observers figured the Rangers (25-3 this season) would be pretty good with Smith, Scott and senior point guard Tyler Owens back leading the way. But few predicted a second state championship.
“Sometimes you want it, but these guys needed it,” said Lewis-Palmer coach Russ McKinstry said. “They needed this repeat. They wanted to prove a point that we weren’t a one-man team last year. I’m very proud of ‘em.”
Valor Christian proved to be a formidable championship game opponent. The Eagles led for much of the first half. Their last lead was 30-29 at the 7:35 mark of the third quarter on a Chandler Lisle jumper.
That didn’t last long as senior forward Dylan Tucker had a put back 15 seconds later, starting a 9-2 run.
The Rangers’ No. 1 goal from the opening day of practice on Nov. 9 was to win the state championship, but the players, McKinstry or his coaching staff openly talked about winning another Gold Ball.
In many ways, the Rangers were a better all-around team the second go-around. They finished the season with 10 consecutive victories, and won their five playoff games by an average score of 65-46.
“Our biggest thing is defense and defense wins championships,” Smith said.
Their three losses were by a combined total of 16 points. After losing back-to-back games in December (73-68 to D’Evelyn and 68-60 in overtime to
5A Chaparral), the Rangers won eight straight before falling to Pikes Peak Athletic Conference rival Sand Creek, 67-64, on Feb. 5.
Smith and Scott were the leading men this season, but they would not be celebrating a second straight state championship had it not been for an unselfish supporting cast.
Tucker scored 10 points in the semifinals victory over Wasson and 10 against Valor Christian before fouling out with 5:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. Owens did a splendid job of running the offense all season and gutted out the championship game with a dislocated ring finger on his shooting hand. He also played with four fouls for most of the fourth quarter.
The team’s fifth starter, junior forward Chase Stone, didn’t play at all in the championship game after suffering a concussion the night before against Wasson. Senior Logan Jones started in Stone’s place and provided solid defensive play. Stone was third on the team in scoring this season with 10.2 points per game.
“We didn’t make any excuses,” McKinstry said. “We had to battle through some adversity. We just came to play and when we had to make plays we made plays.”
Stone will most certainly be the key player on next year’s team. Another key player will be freshman shooting guard Jonathan Scott (who saw significant playing time against Valor Christian). Other returners should be junior Kalin Hannon, and sophomores Colin Cicere and J.T. Shepherd.
Three other freshmen dressed for the playoffs – Sam Strasburger, Joe DeCoud and Kyle Rex. Lewis-Palmer’s freshmen squad was among the best it’s had in recent years. Jordan Scott believes a three-peat is a possibility.
“I hope so,” he said. “That would be pretty cool.
“It’s going to take talent, work ethic and character. Those are the big things that go into winning.”
If history is any indication, then the Rangers just might be in the hunt again next year. They have been to five consecutive Final Fours since McKinstry returned to the sidelines five years ago. Will next year be No.6? Only time will tell.