HIGHLANDS RANCH — The past two years have been both a fun ride and a massive breakthrough for the Mead boys basketball program.
Surpassing one expectation after another for a program as relatively young as theirs, the Mavericks reached the Class 4A Great 8 in back-to-back seasons. Led by a talented and experienced senior group, they also won a program-best 21 games during the 2017 campaign.
That two-year run came to an end Saturday when the ninth-seeded Mavericks fell 60-51 to the No. 1 Valor Christian Eagles in the Great 8 at Valor Christian High School. In the end, it took the top team in 4A to prevent the Mavericks from stretching their incredible run out just a few more days.
"We wanted to win and we came here to battle, and I'm proud of the guys because we gave it our all and that's all we can ever do," Mavericks senior Michael Ward said. "It's been an amazing run these past few years. Coming in each year and knowing we had a chance to go far, and just believing in ourselves was a great feeling."
Bolstered by a friendly crowd that showed out in force on Saturday, the Mavericks put forth a pretty credible bid to reach the Final Four for the first time.
After the lead changed hands three times in the first quarter, the Eagles (22-4) led 16-14 to start the second. Opening the second quarter with a 9-2 run, the Eagles rode a dominant 13-point frame from senior Jalen Sanders to pull ahead 31-25 at the half. The Mavericks (21-5) hung around and senior Michael Rice hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 33-30 midway through the third quarter. The Eagles, however, ended the third quarter on a 13-1 run and led by 15 points to start the fourth.
The Mavericks pulled back within reach in the fourth quarter and senior Michael Ward hit a pair of free throws to cut the lead to 53-49 with 1:27 left in the game. But in the final minute and a half, the Eagles went 7 for 8 at the free-throw line while the Mavericks had two turnovers and just one field goal.
Mavericks head coach Darin Reese said the Great 8 matchup was a completely different game than the first time the teams met this season, which ended in a 79-53 win for Valor Christian of Jan. 3 of the regular season.
"With seeing them once already, we had a pretty good idea what to expect," Reese said. "We're a completely different team two months later and we were ready. We had a couple rough stretches but we showed a lot of grit at the end and I'm proud of the effort."
Showing their toughness on the road, the Mavericks forced the host Eagles into 19 turnovers. Ward (21.5 ppg) led the Mavericks with 25 points, including 14 in the fourth quarter, and senior Alex Sandstrom scored 11.
The Eagles will face No. 12 Golden (19-7) in the Final Four at the Denver Coliseum next Friday.
Valor Christian 60, Mead 51
At Valor Christian H.S.
Cheung 1 1-2 3, Wilke 1 0-0 2, Ward 8 8-9 25, Edwards 0 0-0 0, Sandstrom 1 9-9 11, Rice 3 0-0 7, Cloke 1 1-2 3. Totals 15 19-22 51.
VALOR CHRISTIAN (22-4)
L. McCaffrey 0 0-0 0, Randle 0 0-0 0, Foley 0 0-0 0, Knuckles 6 2-2 16, Crosby 0 2-2 2, D. McCaffrey 3 1-1 8, Remus 0 0-0 0, Michael 3 0-0 7, Wilson 0 0-0 0, Sanders 9 8-11 27. Totals 20 15-18 60.
Score by quarters:Mead 14 11 6 20 — 51
Valor Christian 16 15 15 14 — 60
3-point field goals — Mead (2): Ward, Rice; Valor Christian (4): Knuckles 2, D. McCaffrey, Michael. Total fouls — Mead 17, Valor Christian 20. Fouled out — Rice, D. McCaffrey.