KEENESBURG — Kristi Nagai was the calming force the Jefferson Academy Jaguars needed on Friday night in their Class 3A playoff opener against Weld Central.
Against a Rebels side that was content to play a less than free-flowing game, having the ball in the sure-handed point guard's hands was an absolute must.
Nagai finished with a game-high 18 points for 25th-seeded Jaguars in a 38-30 mild upset over Colorado 7 League representative and No. 8-seeded Rebels.
"We were definitely optimistic about the whole game. We didn't want to come in thinking we were going to blow them out, but we didn't want to come in thinking it was going to be a hard game either," said Nagai, whose team will face No. 9 St. Mary's in the Sweet 16 on Saturday at 2 p.m. back in Keenesburg.
"We played our game and did what we do, enough so to go out and win."
Jefferson Academy (16-8) had their hosts flustered with their full court press early on and turned 18 first half Weld Central turnovers into a 21-10 halftime lead.
But they could hardly feel comfortable against the Rebels, who were playing inspired basketball for their fallen teammate Isabel Leet — their best player, who died in a car accident on December 23.
The Rebels (14-9) slowly chipped away at the Jaguars lead in the third quarter, forcing the ball to the paint and getting to the foul line. Weld Central got as close as 27-22 late in the third when Nagai came up big.
She hit two layups in traffic that quickly turned a two possession game into a 31-22 lead going to the fourth quarter.
"Everybody looks at me to calm them down almost, and I think I did that pretty well and everyone else kept their cool too," said Nagai, who was driving against some of Weld Central's biggest players. "It was definitely intimidating with those big girls out there, but I just tried to play my game and get to the basket."
Said Jefferson Academy coach Crystal Deichert: "Big players step up in big games and she knew what was needed of her tonight. She had been struggling with those shots not going the last few games, and she adjusted tonight and got those crucial buckets when we needed them."
The Jags were balanced after Nagai's 18, getting six from Kelliann Raff and four each from Mira Houck and Emily Grantham.
Christina Gerkin led Weld Central with 15 points.
JEFFERSON ACADEMY 38, WELD CENTRAL 30
At Weld Central
JEFFERSON ACADEMY (16-8)
Kara Dobbs 0 0-0 0, Kristi Nagai 7 4-6 18, Katie Thimsen 1 1-3 3, Rachel Schlagel 1 0-1 2, Kelliann Raff 2 1-2 6, Mira Houck 2 0-0 4, Emily Grantham 1 2-4 4, Laura Riley 0 1-2 1, Ellie Hausmann 0 0-0 0. Totals 14 9-18 38.
WELD CENTRAL (14-9)
Mikayla Ripple 0 0-2 0, Emily Booco 2 2-2 6, Mikayla Brovsky 0 0-0 0, Allison Daniel 0 0-0 0, Jordan McClure 1 4-8 6, Katie Schmidt 0 1-4 1, Yvette Espino 0 0-0 0, Christina Gerkin 5 5-8 15, Kaydee Monsey 0 2-2 2. Totals 8 14-26 30.
Score by quarters:Jefferson Academy 10 11 10 7 — 38
Weld Central 8 2 12 8 — 30
3-point field goals — Jefferson Academy (1): Raff; Weld Central (0): none. Total fouls — Jefferson Academy 19; Weld Central 19. Fouled out — Brovsky.