BOULDER -- Not only was the No. 1-ranked boys basketball team in Class 1A vulnerable on Wednesday, but Shining Mountain appeared to be on an unavoidable collision-course with its first loss of the season.
Through three quarters of the Lions' nonconference showdown against No. 8 Vail Christian, Shining Mountain was all but defeated. The Lions were playing without senior Colin Cantwell, the club's leading scorer and rebounder, and going into the fourth quarter Shining Mountain had been floundering at both ends of the floor.
All of the sudden the Lions turned up the defensive intensity while sophomore Garrett Johnston found his shooting touch, quickly making those first three quarters a distant memory. The Lions outscored visiting Vail Christian 27-6 during the final frame, turning an almost certain upset loss into a stunningly comfortable 57-45 victory.
"The message was just to stop thinking so much and be aggressive," Shining Mountain coach Enoch Miller said. "We just wanted to continue to pressure defensively and try and create some offense from our defense. I think I said at the end of the third that it doesn't matter what has happened this whole game. What happens in this fourth quarter will determine what happens at the end."
What happened in the fourth quarter was an abrupt turnaround for a Lions club that shot just 11 for 37 through three quarters while surrendering 39 points -- an unlikely defensive total for a team that had not allowed 40 points since the first three games of the season.
Trailing 41-32 early the fourth, Johnston made four consecutive 3-pointers during a 19-2 Shining Mountain run that turned that nine-point deficit into a 51-43 lead. While the shooting of Landon Taliaferro kept the Lions in the game -- the guard came off the bench to drain four 3-pointers, the last of which gave Shining Mountain the lead for good with 4 minutes, 4 seconds remaining -- it was Johnston who provided the big lift in Cantwell's absence.
Johnston scored all of his game-high 21 points after halftime, making 5 of 6 3-point attempts during the final two quarters while also going 4 for 5 at the free-throw line.
"Our team needed the win and someone needed to step up, and I think Landon and I both did," said Johnston, who posted 16 points in the fourth quarter. "After I hit the first one, I didn't think I could miss. We have a couple more big games before March, and this gives us a lot of confidence going into those games."
Taliaferro finished with 14 points, while Austin Bremner and Alex Beal contributed 11 points apiece.
As for Cantwell, who averages team-leading totals of 17.3 points and 8.7 rebounds, coach Miller indicated the senior forward could have gutted through the injury had the stakes been higher. However, with the season not yet at the halfway point, Miller opted to take no chances. He did not say whether Cantwell would be available when the Lions (8-0) resume their 5280 League schedule at home Saturday against Belleview Christian.
"If it was the playoffs I think he would have played," Miller said. "But I need him healthy in late February, not early January. We didn't want to take any chances."
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Shining Mountain 57, Vail Christian 45
At Shining Mountain HS
VAIL CHRISTIAN (4-2)
Ellsworth 1 2-6 4, Johnsen 1 4-6 6, Boselli 2 2-2 6, Bowles 5 0-1 13, Linder 6 0-2 12, Berger 2 0-0 4. Totals 17 8-17 45.
SHINING MOUNTAIN (8-0)
Bremner 4 3-6 11, Beal 4 3-5 11, R. Feigal 0 0-0 0, Johnston 6 4-5 21, Hussey 0 0-2 0, Cherin 0 0-0 0, Taliaferro 5 0-0 14. Totals 19 10-18 57.
Score by quarters:
Vail Christian 12 9 18 6 -- 45
Shining Mountain 7 9 14 27 -- 57
3-point field goals -- Vail Christian (3): Bowles 3; Shining Mountain (9): Johnston 5, Taliaferro 4. Total fouls -- Vail Christian 16, Shining Mountain 14.