Setting the tone: Szabo helps GJ advance to Class 5A Sweet 16
Jeslyn Szabo has been forced to watch a lot of basketball over the past week and a half.
The Grand Junction High School junior missed the past 10 days, including the season finale against Central, because of a head injury she sustained Feb. 15 against Montrose.
Szabo was cleared an hour before Friday night’s game Class 5A second-round playoff game against No. 6 seed Loveland (17-7).
Once she got the OK, she was ready to go, scoring eight first-quarter points to help the third-seeded Tigers (17-7) build a 21-10 lead.
The Tigers never looked back, cruising to a 55-47 victory and advancing to a Sweet 16 rematch against Palmer.
“I was confident I was going to play, so I was getting prepared all day,” said Szabo, a 5-foot-10 post player. “The trainer did a couple of tests, and said I was good to go.”
Szabo finished with 12 points. She was able to shoot throughout the week, but couldn’t have any contact until Friday night.
“We weren’t sure she’d be able to play,” Grand Junction coach Sam Provenza said. “We kept her out of drills this week, and got cleared right before the game, but she had a terrific game.”
Fast starts have been a key for the Tigers all season, and Friday was no exception.
“Every time we come out of the locker room aggressive and focused and get a good start, that’s what happens,” Provenza said. “If we start out fast we tend to keep that focus.”
Jamie Derrieux teamed with Szabo to lead Grand Junction’s first-quarter blitz. Derrieux had nine points in the quarter.
Paula Lage started off the second quarter with back-to-back buckets to give Grand Junction a 25-10 lead.
The Indians’ youth — they have only two upperclassmen and nine sophomores — was a problem early on.
“We used to be the team with all sophomores,” Lage said. “We used that to our advantage because we know inexperienced teams will crack under pressure, so we went out and pushed it early.”
Despite a spirited effort from Loveland’s Bradey King, who scored 15 of the Indians’ 17 first-half points, the Tigers led 34-17 at halftime.
“I think that second quarter was the best one we played all season,” Provenza said. “We moved the ball, focused defensively and rebounded really well.”
The second half wasn’t pretty for the Tigers, but Grand Junction kept its lead at double digits until the final seconds.
“I told them that (Loveland) can shoot themselves out of a game, but they can very easily shoot themselves back into a game,” Provenza said. “If they had two or three more minutes, they could have shot themselves back into it.”
The Indians hit 10 3-pointers, including six by King, who had a game-high 29 points.
Lage led the Tigers with 21 points and Derrieux added 16.
“This was a fun game for us,” Lage said. “We have a great home crowd so we were fired up from the very beginning.”
The Tigers are looking forward to their rematch with Palmer, which beat them 58-44 on Jan. 7.
“We lost to Palmer in Colorado Springs, and had a two-and-half minute span in the third that did us in,” Provenza said. “But they know we can play with them and we are confident right now.”