4A GIRLS FINAL FOUR PREVIEW

It’s not quite the Final 4 that was expected, but that is far from a bad thing.
When the last four teams in the Class 4A girls basketball state tournament take to the floor Thursday afternoon at Denver Coliseum for the state semifinals, there will be ample state experience represented.
After all, Evergreen, Pueblo South and Mesa Ridge have combined to win three of the past five 4A championships, to go along with a pair of runner-up finishes. But the fact that No. 6 Evergreen — the defending state champion, no less — is the highest seed remaining shows the unpredictability that state tournaments can often generate.
The Cougars are joined by No. 8 Mesa Ridge, No. 12 Pueblo South and No. 15 Widefield in the Final 4. Mesa Ridge and Pueblo South open play Thursday at 4 p.m. at the Coliseum, with Evergreen and Widefield tipping off at 5:30 p.m.
The 4A state championship game is at 1 p.m. on Saturday at the Coliseum.
Here is a look at Thursday’s semifinals, along with how the teams made it to this point:

 

No. 8 Mesa Ridge (23-3) vs. No. 12 Pueblo South (17-9)

4:00pm – Thursday

Mesa Ridge is actually 3-0 this season against its fellow semifinalists. The Grizzlies swept Widefield in the Colorado Springs Metro League, and opened the 2017-18 season back on Nov. 30 with a 67-48 victory over Pueblo South.
The Grizzlies, who haven’t played for the state title since winning it all in 2014, lost in the Great 8 in each of the past two seasons. But Mesa Ridge avenged last year’s quarterfinal loss by taking down top overall seed Pueblo West 66-63 last Saturday, outscoring the Cyclones 23-10 in the final quarter. Junior Ashley Bowen scored 21 points to go along with a season-high 20 rebounds, and Chloe Welch added 20 points. Angelina Jackson scored 12 points.
Mesa Ridge’s only three losses this season came to 5A teams. The Grizzlies fell by 11 points to Horizon and by seven points to Denver East in early December, and lost to 5A semifinalist Lakewood 56-54 on Feb. 10. Welch leads the team in scoring at 15.8 points a game to go with nine rebounds; Bowen, a 6-foot-3 center, averages 12.7 points, 11 rebounds and 3.5 blocks a game. Jackson and sophomore Serin Dunne average just less than 10 points a game.
With the exception of the Lakewood game, Mesa Ridge hasn’t needed to win close games until the postseason. The Grizzlies had to rally to top Littleton in the second round by one point, and after rolling past a very good Thomas Jefferson team, they needed a comeback once again to take out Pueblo West.
Pueblo South seemed like it was primed to make another run at state after falling to Evergreen in the state title game last March. The Colts returned their top scorers, but things didn’t get off to a great start. The team had a brutal schedule in the first month of the season and was only 4-6 headed into the winter break. A loss to Doherty to start the new year didn’t help, but the team proceeded to win 13 of its next 15 games. The only two losses came to league rival Pueblo West.
South eliminated another league foe in Pueblo County to open its tournament, and then took down the 2015-16 state champion in Valor Christian. The Colts drew No. 20 Sierra in the quarterfinals after the Stallions upset No. 4 Windsor, and South had no trouble advancing with a 70-39 victory.
Junior Gabi Lucero will be a great matchup for Bowen. Lucero averages a double-double as well at 17.7 points and 11.8 rebounds. Maya Austin averages 13.5 points a night, and junior Drea Nelson is at 11.4 points and leads the team with nearly four assists a game.
 

No. 6 Evergreen (24-2) vs. No. 15 Widefield (21-5)

5:30 pm – Thursday

Two years after coming up short against Valor Christian in the 4A championship game, Evergreen earned its first state title last March with a 45-35 victory over Pueblo South. The Cougars graduated only one senior off of that team, and have been equally as tough this winter.
Even with winning the Jeffco League title though, Evergreen only garnered a No. 6 seed headed into state. Coming off a triple-overtime victory over Golden to close out the regular season, the Cougars barely escaped another league foe in Green Mountain in the second round of the playoffs, winning 38-36. But the team followed that up by handling back-to-back Pikes Peak League squads in No. 22 Lewis-Palmer and No. 3 Air Academy, becoming the first team to score 50 points against a Kadets team that had only one loss coming into the quarterfinals.
Like both Mesa Ridge and Pueblo South, Evergreen’s post play is among the best. Junior Claudia Dillon leads the team with 16.2 points and 10.6 rebounds a game, and senior Baylee Galan-Browne averages 10 points. Seniors Hannah Kennedy and Kristina Schreiber average nearly nine points a game, with Schreiber adding more than four assists as well.
With a victory over Widefield, Evergreen would become the first 4A girls team to reach three consecutive title games since Broomfield won five in a row from 2007-11.
The wild-card in this equation is Widefield, which upset No. 2 Holy Family and No. 7 Golden to reach the semifinals. The Gladiators had a very strong season, with four of their losses coming to Mesa Ridge (twice), top-seeded Pueblo West and No. 3 Air Academy. But for a team that was just 12-12 last year and the No. 43 seed in the 48-team field, to turn things around in this manner one year later is remarkable.
Widefield has been helped by a handful of players coming up big when it mattered most. Senior Charisse Fairley scored 21 points in the upset of No. 2 Holy Family, and senior Shynesti Johnson added a season-high 17 points. In the 50-49 victory over Golden, junior Aaliyah Ricketts led the Gladiators with 18 points, Fairley added 16 and sophomore Erika Warner had a season-high 12.
Ricketts averages a team-high 15.6 points and 3.9 assists, while Fairley averages 13.5 points. Johnson is third in scoring at 9.4 points and leads the team with 6.3 rebounds.
Widefield hasn’t played for a state championship since coming in second to Mullen in 2000 and 2001.

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