Thu Mar 10th, 2022
Special to the Drum
The fact his team couldn’t hold, much less increase a 16-6 second-quarter lead certainly concerned Lotus School for Excellence head coach Sami Jabai, but not to the degree one might have expected after Ignacio senior Gabe Tucson took sophomore Gabe Cox’s touch pass in the paint and dropped in a short-range basket tying the Class 2A-Region IV semifinal at 20-20 about 20 seconds before halftime.
“We were prepared for this one, man,” he said. “I just had to remind them at the half: ‘Just be us! I know it’s a little bit of a different atmosphere, but just be us!’ I told them it was zero-zero, and if we come out doing what we know we can, we’d stretch the lead a little bit.”
Only during the third quarter, it was the underdog Bobcats doing the expansion.
“In the locker room we were all excited,” sophomore Phillip Quintana said. “We were all ready to go, but hoping we wouldn’t mess up the third again … like we always do. The goal was not to … stay with them and hope for the best, I guess!”
Tucson began by drilling a midrange pull-up deuce, and though the Meteors answered with back-to-back buckets, Cox retied the game at 24 with a short jumper, and Tucson then converted a put-back for a 26-24 lead. Increasing their pressure, the ’Cats, seeded 20th in the CHSAA State Tournament’s opening Round-of-32, extended their advantage to 30-24 via an Eppie Quintana baseline take of a quick Cox feed, forcing 13-seed Lotus into a timeout with 3:37 left.
“I think we made a couple adjustments on their penetration, shut their penetration down, and got to where we could tie it up by halftime,” IHS head coach Chris Valdez said. “But then the third quarter …. We’ve been the worst third-quarter team in the league, those first four or five minutes; we came out strong those four, five minutes, got that six-point lead.”
“If we could have stuck right there, going back and forth, we’d have been O.K.,” he continued. “But we made three or four major mistakes, they got a lead, and then they kind of took over.”
Led by the backcourt of seniors Adani Hassan and Elias Dessalegn, the Meteors stayed close despite Tucson canning a go-ahead trey that regained the designated visitors inside regional-hosting Vail Mountain’s gym a 33-32 lead entering the fourth quarter. Lotus senior Petros ‘Peter’ Tareke answered immediately with a triple to begin the fourth, and the Meteors grew their lead to 39-33 on a Dessalegn basket.
Tucson (15 points) interrupted with a pair of free throws, but Aurora-based Lotus went into the deciding three minutes up 44-37 after Hassan hit one of two foul-line attempts. Game until the waning moments, the Bobcats cut that deficit down to just three points, 44-41, via two Cox FTs, but got no closer the rest of the way.
“We were looking (to) foul one of their players, get them on the line,” said Cox, explaining how the ’Cats tried countering Lotus’ time-wasting four-corner spread offense late in the contest, “or just try to get them to move the ball around a bit more.”
“We kind of fell apart a bit,” Valdez said. “They were able to start penetrating, then pulled it back – we just aren’t quick enough to guard them.”
“That’s my players’ doing,” said Jabai. “Adani, he has a really good handle and understands the game. Peter, he’s controlled with ball in hand, and A.J. (senior Ahmed Jabai), just rarely makes mistakes. I can trust them with the ball.”
Nailing eight of ten fourth-quarter free throws, then icing the cake with a steal and buzzer-beating layup, Hassan finished with 18 points. Dessalegn also logged 18, while junior Caleb Bafukila (8 points), Tareke (6) and Jabai (2) rounded out the Meteors’ scoring as Lotus advanced to play 4-seed VMHS – winners of the night’s other semi, 53-43 over 29-seed Lyons – in the next afternoon’s championship.
LSFE also ended up 15-of-20 at the foul line (though they were just 6-of-7 before the fourth quarter). In defeat Ignacio went 7-of-9 with Tucson making all four of his tries and Cox three of five. Cox totaled 13 points, junior Eppie Quintana added six (including the game’s very first two), sophomore Devante Montoya scored five (including a three-ball which sparked IHS’ aforementioned first-half rally), and Phillip Quintana chipped in two.
“You know, we ran into a team that was a real mismatch for us because we don’t run man-to-man, and if they got a lead we knew they were going to pull the ball out and that’s what hurt us,” said Valdez. “But for my team … man I’m proud of them! We went 16-and-7, and that’s pretty good for a team that had one starter (Tucson) back from last year.”
“We’ll have a lot of kids coming back, so this speaks volumes of what they can do.”
“I think it was my best game,” Cox said. “Double digits in points, had good rebounds, had a really good block. Gabe Tucson, I feel bad for him because this was his last year, but we have a young team and we’re coming back next year for sure.”
The Meteors, meanwhile, further improved to 19-4 overall the next afternoon and earned their place in the Great Eight phase – beginning Thurs., March 10, inside the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland – by stunning Vail Mountain 36 to 28.
The Gore Rangers finished 18-4 overall in ’21-22; LHS ended up 13-10.