BOULDER — On Friday night, Longmont boys basketball coach Jeff Kloster said this year's Trojans team wanted to win a championship more than any team he has coached in his 22 years at Longmont High.
For the second year in a row, the Trojans had the talent to make that dream a reality, too. Unfortunately, Kloster's declaration of his team's desire came after the Trojans lost a second-half lead and fell 58-53 to Valor Christian in the Class 4A Final 4 at Coors Events Center on Friday night.
Another incredible season ended earlier than the Trojans, who have won more games than any 4A team in Colorado over the past two years, had hoped.
"I thought we played extremely hard, played really well in the first half," Kloster said. "We contained them extremely well. I can't fault my kids' effort. I thought my kids came to play. Sometimes after a difficult loss like this, you start saying, 'What if? What if?' They made plays when they needed to and I can't fault my kids."
The Trojans (25-2) last won a state basketball title in 1942 and have reached the Final 4 in three of the past seven seasons. They finished runners-up in 2015, falling in overtime to Air Academy in the state championship game. For most of Friday's game against the Eagles (25-2), a battle of two No. 1 seeds, they appeared destined for a return appearance in the state title game.
Boise State University-bound senior Justinian Jessup was spectacular in the first half, scoring a game-high 17 points and shooting 63 percent from the field. In the second quarter, he hit three straight shots to pace a 15-2 Longmont run that put the Trojans up 26-16 at halftime.
With the Eagles paying him more attention after the half, Jessup got off just six shots and scored five points in the final two quarters. He finished his final prep game with 22 points, nine rebounds, five assists and four steals.
"Justinian is one of the very, very best I've ever had in my entire career, and I've been very fortunate as a coach," Kloster said. "Sometimes you need a player like that to just carry you and he carried us on his back in the first half. They did a great job of dogging him in the second half and they changed up defenses."
The Trojans led by as many as 15 points in the second half and led 40-28 to start the fourth. In the fourth quarter, however, the Eagles outscored the defending runners-up 30-13. The Eagles took the lead on a 3-pointer from Kayle Knuckles with 1 minutes, 35 seconds remaining and didn't relinquish it.
Trying to get back the lead, Longmont missed a pair of free throws, missed an open layup, and turned the ball over on an illegal screen in the final 90 seconds while the Eagles hit their free throws. Jessup sank a 3-pointer to cut the Eagles' lead to four points with 15 seconds left but it was too late.
"We just didn't have what it took in those crucial moments in the fourth quarter," Kloster said.
Both teams shot 23 free throws in the game. The Eagles made 19. The Trojans, who shot 31 percent at the charity stripe in the second half, made 12.
"We were blessed to be in a position, down 15, and we didn't quit," Eagles head coach Troy Pachner said. "We're very young and a lot of times a younger team right there would have folded. But we knew if we started to hit some shots, we saw the opportunity because they really were not scoring."
Friday's game was a rematch of the 2015 Great 8, a game in which Kolton Bachman made a late basket to give Longmont a 47-46 win over Valor Christian. Bachman scored 10 points in the Final 4 iteration. Jalen Sanders led the Eagles, who were made five 3-pointers in second half after going 0-for-6 from behind the arc in the first, with 20 points and Kayle Knuckles scored 19.
The Eagles will face No. 2 Pueblo West (24-3) in the championship game at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Cyclones defeated No. 3 Vista Ridge (20-7) in the early semifinal on Friday night.
Valor Christian 58, Longmont 53
At Coors Events Center
VALOR CHRISTIAN (25-2)
Kayle Knuckles 8 2-2 19, Jeremy Randle 3 1-2 10, Karsten Michael 0 0-0 0, Grant Adams 0 0-0 0, Austin Remus 0 0-0 0, Josh Randle 0 4-4 4, Jalen Sanders 6 7-9 20, Dylan McCaffrey 0 3-4 3, Keisan Crosby 0 2-2 2, Booker Schelhaas 0 0-0 0. Totals 17 19-23 58.
Eli Sullivan 1 2-3 4, Justinian Jessup 7 6-7 22, David Speidel 2 2-4 6, Cooper Rothe 0 0-0 0, Kolton Bachman 4 2-10 10, Ryan Rulon 1 0-0 3, Tol Mugunga 0 0-0 0, Kevin Mitchell 3 2-2 8. Totals 18 12-23 53.
Score by quarters:Valor Christian 10 6 12 30 — 58
Longmont 11 15 14 13 — 53
3-point field goals — Valor Christian (5): Je. Randle 3, Knuckles, Sanders; Longmont (5): Jessup 2, Speidel 2, Rulon. Total fouls — Valor Christian 17, Longmont 18.