Tigers held off
Late-game slowdown lifts Pueblo West past GJ
They held the ball.
Just when Pueblo West’s aggressiveness late in the fourth quarter Thursday had given the Grand Junction High School girls basketball team instant free throws off fouls with the double-bonus, and just when Tigers guard Elisha Jahnke whipped a high-releasing 3-pointer that smacked through the net, the Cyclones backed off.
And held the ball.
Grand Junction had pulled within three points on Jahnke’s 3-pointer when the Cyclones backed three guards to half court and dribbled time away. Sometimes driving, sometimes standing still, the Cyclones drained time before, finally, fouls and layups led to Pueblo West’s 63-55 win.
Sophomores with projected standout basketball futures sometimes were face to face. The No. 3 team in Class 4A, Pueblo West (9-0) featured sophomore guard Haley Simental, who twitched and jabbed with the ball and flashed speed. She finished with six points.
For the Tigers (10-1), ranked No. 10 in Class 5A, it was sophomore guard Sydni Brandon, silky in motion, always under control, a former league champion sprinter gliding to 24 points. Numerous times, she simply took an inbounds pass and shook and wobbled to the basket, putting herself in ideal position for easy layups.
“The thing I didn’t know was how fast she was,” Pueblo West coach Gil Lucero said. “One step and she was by you.”
Tigers coach Sam Provenza said Lucero had planned on putting Taylor Leyva, who scored a game-high 26 points, on Tigers center Shafer Rubalcaba.
Rubalcaba was out with a sprained ankle. She’s known for free-throw accuracy and finishing ability around the basket. And she may at times have been guarding Leyva, who often drove and hit pull-up jumpers in the lane.
The Tigers missed too many layups, Provenza said. They also shot 10 of 26 from the free-throw line.
Still, in a game where pressure pushed against pressure until something popped — perhaps the pop was Pueblo West backing into their spread offense during the final minutes — the Tigers pushed one of the best teams in Class 4A.
“That’s a darn good basketball team,” Provenza said. “They’ll walk into any gym any place and put out that kind of performance. They’re not afraid of anybody.”
The Cyclones often put a full-court press on the Tigers, who at times handled the break well as Brandon, Kylie Burns, Jahnke and Bri Baldwin, who hit a 3-pointer even though she’s recovering from a sprained right wrist and played her first game in three weeks, took turns dicing the press.
“We were able to get our fast break going real fast,” Jahnke said, “especially Syd with her little drives.”
A wave of offense punctuated the third quarter and seemed to demonstrate playoff-like basketball: Pueblo West hit its first 3-pointer of the game when Celeste Wormington dropped one in with 5:23 left; Brandon answered with a 3 that hit the front of the rim and rolled in; Leyva followed seconds later with a 3 of her own; Brandon came back with a coast-to-coast layup, and Daisy Romero ended the sudden action with another 3.
In two minutes, 14 points were scored, and Pueblo West had extended a 37-31 lead to 43-36.
Grand Junction is done for Christmas break and next plays at Class 5A’s No. 4-ranked Chaparral on Jan. 11, followed the next day at No. 9-ranked ThunderRidge.
Albeit against a 4A team, Thursday was the Tigers first taste of the state’s elite.