Boys basketball: Grit the name of the game for Longmont in 4A Final Four

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Senior Luke Johnson leads Longmont into Friday's Class 4A Final Four. Johnson is averaging 19.5 points a game for the Trojans.

  • Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer

    Longmont coach Jeff Kloster has the Trojans in their third Final Four in the past four seasons.

  • Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer

    Oakley Dehning and the Longmont Trojans battle Pueblo South in the 4A semifinals Friday.



If You Go

What: Class 4A state tournament semifinals and championship game.

When: Friday, 4 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. (semifinals); Saturday, 3 p.m. (state championship game).

Where: Denver Coliseum, 4600 Humboldt Street, Denver

Info: Longmont is in its third Final Four in the past four years looking for its first boys hoops title since the World War II era. The Trojans take on Pueblo South in the second semifinal. A win would send Longmont to its seventh title-game appearance.

Something very specific about the way games have gone for the Longmont basketball team in the Class 4A playoffs actually has played true out throughout their 24-2 campaign.

Go ahead, take a good long look at each game through the year. You’re going to find that the Trojans have been one of the best teams in the state coming out of halftime and crushing the will of an opposing team.

It’s happened three times in three playoff games, and only three times all season has Longmont failed to put up at the least the same or more points than its opponent in that crucial third quarter.

That trend will get tougher to continue this weekend in the Class 4A semifinals, which for the Trojans begins at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the Denver Coliseum. The fifth seed in the state tournament, Longmont has the daunting task of facing No. 1 seeded Pueblo South.

It is, however, something the players recognize as a strength.

“We usually come out pretty strong in the third quarter, and we did that again (Saturday at Falcon),” said senior Luke Johnson, who has been instrumental in helping extend leads with his take-it-over mentality. “The third quarter has always been big for us. Pretty much every game this year, we’ve been the smaller team, so I think it’s helped us out just knowing we have to play to our strengths.

“We’ve made some good adjustments defensively, and that usually helps us get out and run a little bit. That’s when we’re at our best.”

In 26 games, Longmont has only trailed at the half on two occasions — against Golden (by a 29-28 score) in the season’s second contest, and then against Windsor (30-29) in its second playoff game. There are 11 other instances, though, where LHS was leading by six points or less at the break and managed to keep or extend the lead by the end of the third quarter. Overall, Longmont has out-scored foes 401-268 in the third.

Last Saturday, it was Falcon who fell victim to the trend.

Leading by just two at the Falcon High gym, Johnson went off for 10 points in the third quarter and Longmont was able to find a comfort zone that eventually led to a 62-54 win. Johnson was responsible for 15 points in the third quarter against the Wizards, too, in a 59-56 win.

Longmont’s first playoff game against Cheyenne Mountain wasn’t nearly as close, but LHS was able to go from an eight-point advantage at 26-18 to a 14-point edge.

It’s that poise, perhaps the ability to adapt in-game, that has the Trojans optimistic about their chances against any combination of the final three opponents they can face — including possible championship-game matchups against No. 2 Lewis-Palmer or No. 6 Pueblo West on Saturday night.

There’s no chance the Trojans, headed by Jeff Kloster, are looking that far ahead, however.

Pueblo South — winners of the 4A football title this year — is seasoned, to be true. Like Longmont, the Colts (24-2) have made multiple appearances in the Final Four the past few years under coach DJ Johnson, and in the past three seasons the team is 65-13 overall (Longmont is 62-16). Yet, with all the success, neither team has been able to bring home that elusive state title in years.

The Trojans arguably have the deeper bench, but Pueblo South has three double-digit scorers in seniors Marcell Barbee (17.5 ppg), Tonay Aragon (14.0) and Jeremy Cody (13.5).

Johnson, who leads Longmont with a 19.5 scoring average, said the Trojans are likely to be out-sized … again. But the true nature of the team this year is the grit they’ve shown, and that just has to come through two more times for Longmont to bring home the ultimate prize.

“I think we all have kind of a bulldog mentality, and we all just scrap and scramble for every loose ball no matter who we’re playing,” Johnson said. “We always go by, the little things add up to the big things. Do the little things right, and you can go on a run.

“Coach always says just enjoy the moment because not a lot of people get to experience this. At the end of the day, it’s still going to be a basketball game. You play the way you know you can, but it’s about enjoying it, really.”

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