Denver East presents a tough Sweet 16 challenge for Tigers
The man deemed the best in the state awaits — again.
Last year, the Sweet 16 of the Class 5A state boys basketball playoffs brought Josh Perkins of Regis Jesuit. This year, it’s Denver East’s Dominique Collier standing in Grand Junction’s way in its bid to reach the Great 8.
And complicating matters is Collier’s supporting cast. The Angels, seeded first in the Jim Baggot Region, don’t have any weak links. Never mind East’s 20-4 record. None of those losses came in the state.
So, fourth-seeded Grand Junction (21-2), after its Tuesday drive over the mountains to Denver, has another mountain to climb at 6 tonight at Manual High School’s Thunderdome.
“The talent they have is unparalleled with anything we’ve seen,” Tigers coach Dutch Johnson said. “Collier scores 23 points per game, and Ronnie Harrell is able to create, and we know how good he is, and everyone else on the court is just as good offensively. ... They have nobody you can leave (to help guard another player on defense).”
Collier signed to play for the University of Colorado in the fall, and Harrell landed a scholarship to Creighton University. But the college-bound talent goes beyond those two seniors.
“Their fourth and fifth and sixth players are all college basketball players,” Johnson said.
But Collier is the standout among standouts. He leads the Angels in points and steals, is second in assists and third in rebounds. He can drive to the basket with quickness and body control that makes attempts to draw charges a waste of time, and his efforts usually net a basket, a foul or an assist. He also can stand beyond the arc and knock down the 3 as his team-high 59 3-pointers attest.
“That’s the kind of player you almost have to let beat you from the perimeter, because in the paint he’s scary,” Johnson said. “He does everything well. He does most things great.”
Harrell, a small forward or shooting guard, poses another problem, roaming the perimeter on each end of the court with his 6-foot-7 frame. He’s also a nightmare to see in the Angels’ full-court press, where he isn’t alone with his quickness and long arms.
“They’re going to press and trap us, and if they do that and get steals and get in transition, they can’t be stopped,” Johnson said. “The key is really to get rid of (the ball) before they trap. We have to get people in the right spots, stay out of the corners.”
Grand Junction senior Broderick Robinson, an elite player in his own right, said the Tigers need to handle the press, then slow the game down in their half-court offense. That will be a change for the Tigers, who often pushed the pace during the regular season, but they know they can’t get into a running game against East.
“Taking care of the ball is going to be the most important part of the game,” Robinson said, “and slowing it down. They don’t want to play (half-court) defense.”
Robinson said the Tigers know few people outside their locker room believe Grand Junction has a chance to win against the Angels. That doesn’t bother him. He’s not intimidated.
“They’re one of the best teams in the state. They know they are. They’re going to come in overlooking us,” Robinson said, “and hopefully we can shock them.”
Likewise, Tigers center D.J. Wells said East’s abundance of athletes is impressive, but he noted the Angels will be without “their big man,” Tyre Robinson, who has missed several games serving a suspension for violating team rules.
Maybe that will help Grand Junction. Regardless, Wells said, every team is beatable, and the Tigers believe if they play their best, they can win.
“They have everything to lose. We have nothing to lose,” said Wells, who averages 11.4 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game and can change the complexion of a contest without scoring a point. “We just have to go out and play.”
Wells sounded a lot like his coach, as Johnson added, “Our kids know how good Denver East is, so we just have to go play. All the pressure’s on them.”