BOULDER — The Boulder boys basketball program came agonizingly close to what would have been a beautiful full-circle moment on Wednesday night, but it wasn’t meant to be.
The last time the Panthers reached the Great 8 was in 2011, when current head coach Riley Grabau led his team to the Class 5A state championship game. In his first official run at the helm after serving at Boulder’s interim head coach in 2018-19, Grabau led the No. 8-seed Panthers against No. 9 Columbine at Boulder High on Wednesday.
Despite being in the driver’s seat in the game, the Panthers watched their lead deteriorate rapidly and they fell 53-52, one point short of a long-awaited return to the state quarterfinals.
“You know, sometimes that’s that way life and basketball goes,” Grabau said. “Sometimes it doesn’t bounce your way. I’m just sad for these guys because they’ve showed our team, our school and our community that playing hard and having a good work ethic, it actually means something. That’s something you can’t teach and that’s something those dudes have in spades.
“I’m very proud of them. The ball just didn’t bounce our way.”
Rallying back from a 26-24 deficit at halftime of their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2016, the Panthers (20-5) traded leads with the Rebels (21-4) until the game was tied 37-37 with 2 minutes, 37 seconds left in the third quarter. Boulder senior Pete Boyle hit a free throw and junior Jimmy Starry converted a steal into a layup that sparked an 8-0 run that gave the Panthers a little breathing room midway through the fourth.
That’s when Columbine’s Luke O’Brien blew it all apart.
O’Brien, a senior who is scoring over 25 points per game and will play for the University of Colorado next year, scored all 16 of the Rebels’ points in the fourth quarter including a pair of 3-pointers that tied the game at 52-52 with 47 seconds left. O’Brien finished with 33 points and on Columbine’s next possession, was fouled on the perimeter with 9.3 seconds remaining in the game. He made the second of two resulting free throws to put Columbine up 53-52.
The Panthers got up two desperate shots but neither would go down.
“I think they’re a good, well-coached team and O’Brien is a great player,” Grabau said. “He caught fire and it’s a game of runs. He hit some big shots that you just give him credit for working on his craft. He’s gifted.”
Junior Drake Arthur led Boulder with 13 points and Boyle finished with 12 points.
Columbine will face No.1 Rangeview (25-0) in the Great 8 on Saturday.