Arapahoe has now built a Final Four team and it’s been a long time coming.
The Warriors finally broke through the playoff barrier that stood before them — multiple times in the form of other Centennial League teams — with a 53-46 victory over Fossil Ridge in a basketball contest of Class 5A Great 8 Girls Friday afternoon at the Denver Coliseum.
Fifth-seeded Arapahoe held off a rally from the 13th-seeded SaberCats in the fourth quarter to earn a spot in the March 10 Final Four against the winner of the latest contest between No. 1 Valor Christian and No. ° 8 Chaparral.
“Getting to that level and going beyond that is tough,” veteran Arapahoe coach Jerry Knafelc said. “I just think it’s great for our program. We have already been on point. Any win we get at this point belongs to everyone who has played in my program for the past 12 years.
“We stand on the shoulders of giants who have helped us continue to climb this ladder and I want to honor them, but I don’t want to take anything away from the incredibly special group of young women that I have.”
While Grandview, defending 4A State Champion Mullen and Cherry Creek could have been at this point as they have in the past on several occasions, Arapahoe is the Centennial League program that looks like it could be overlooked.
“We’ve been working hard all season,” said rookie Gianna Smith, who finished with a team-high 15 points. “I think everyone doubts us, so it feels good to show them how good we are.”
The Warriors (18-7) had advanced at the Denver Coliseum with decisive wins over Lakewood (51-25) and Columbine (72-54), but found a much tougher challenge from a Fossil Ridge team that eliminated fourth-seeded Monarch in the Sweet 16.
A 9-1 run to end the first quarter – which included a pair of 3-pointers by 6-foot-2 senior Sam Crispe – put the Warriors in the lead at 15-9, but the SaberCats had a flurry of 8- 0 of their own to take a brief lead in the second quarter on two free throws from Kate Davis.
Smith helped give Arapahoe a 24-19 lead at the break with a pair of backhands, part of a distinct rebounding advantage for the Warriors.
Fossil Ridge kept coming into the second half, preventing Arapahoe from pushing the lead into double digits and finding a way to stay within striking distance.
“It was definitely frustrating because we couldn’t get that lead, but we ended up executing,” Smith said.
After a turnover-heavy third quarter, Arapahoe saw their lead shrink to twofold at 44-42 with 3:12 left and 48-46 with 1:29 left, but Smith calmly sank free throws at the end and the Warriors closed it. .
The success in the clutch was largely due in part to a tough non-league schedule followed by the grueling Centenary League gauntlet.
Several days of practice will be invaluable to Arapahoe before his semi-final, regardless of the outcome.
“It’s great because even the kids who don’t play have seen this and want to be there,” Knafelc said. “They’re excited about it.”